Next year, local government elections are due (in theory). Could the African National Congress (ANC) be punished at the polls again, as it was in 2016?
Given that South Africa has experienced a decline in GDP every year since 2013, and that the Covid-19 pandemic and its resultant totalitarian lockdown have inflicted economic devastation, it will be something of a surprise if the ANC doesn’t see a decline in its vote share.
That said, the country’s opposition is in disarray, and a postponement of next year’s election is also not an impossibility.
The 2016 elections gave South Africa an unprecedented number of municipal coalition governments, notably in our metro municipalities. In four of the eight metros, no single party was big enough to govern alone. In Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni, the ANC was the single biggest party, and in Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay (NMB) it was the Democratic Alliance (DA). Apart from Ekurhuleni, where the ANC co-opted the African Independent Congress to secure a stable coalition arrangement, the other three metros governed by coalitions have been beset by instability, chaos, and infighting.
Tshwane is under administration and NMB may join it there after months of chaos. Johannesburg, now governed by the ANC under mayor Geoff Makhubo, seems, for now, to be fairly stable, after an eventful period under the DA and Herman Mashaba.
But will 2021 see the same pattern as in 2016 – substantial losses for the ANC in the cities and a general retreat for the party across the country?
Although there is a school of thought that argues that ANC voters support the ruling party out of blind loyalty, my senior colleague, Frans Cronje, makes a strong argument that ANC voters remain loyal only as long as their material conditions improve. Between 1994 and 2009, it is abundantly clear that this did happen; incomes went up, unemployment began to decline, and on just about every metric the lives of South Africans began to improve. And this was seen in election results. The ANC was a juggernaut which, at its zenith in 2004, was the biggest party in every province, had three-quarters of the vote in five of them, and nearly 70% of the national vote.
Of course, the election of Jacob Zuma, first as ANC president and then as president of the country, derailed that somewhat, and a decade of economic mismanagement left the ANC weaker than at any other point in the democratic era. In the 2016 municipal election, it won only 53% of the national vote, and saw its vote share shrink dramatically in many municipalities, particularly in the cities. In 2019, it won only 57.5% of the vote, and barely held on to its majority in Gauteng, South Africa’s economic heartland. It was likely helped significantly by the fact that Cyril Ramaphosa was its leader, who was seen by many as the symbol of a new start after the horrors of the Zuma decade. If Ramaphosa had not been the face of the ANC, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the party would have lost its national majority and would certainly have lost its majority in Gauteng.
Since Ramaphosa became president in 2018, he has lost nearly all of the goodwill he had gained and he has shown he is either unable or unwilling to implement the structural reforms that the country needs, or to get rid of the rotten elements of the ANC. This could have significant implications for the party in next year’s local elections. Add the ANC’s incompetent handling of the Covid pandemic and the party could be in for an unprecedented hammering at the polls.
However, the opposition has, once again, shown itself to be in disarray. Some will point to social media faux pas by some in the DA’s leadership as evidence that the party is in crisis. Apart from people who spend too much time on Twitter, most South Africans will not have any idea what Helen Zille’s latest twar is all about, but it is clear that the DA has lost ground and could struggle to do as well in 2021 as it did in 2016. It did poorly in last year’s general election, and subsequent local by-elections show that despite the resignation of former leader, Mmusi Maimane, the party continued losing support. This was likely due to a number of factors including its botched handling of an alleged racial incident in Schweizer-Reneke in the North-West, the poor way it handled the aftermath of its fairly poor electoral performance in May last year, and the chaos that characterised the metros it governed, with the exception of Cape Town.
However, the party has been fairly forthright in its criticism of government failures during the Covid lockdown and the province it governs, the Western Cape, has done well in managing the pandemic’s peak, with Premier Alan Winde being praised for his assured handling of the crisis. Whether that will be enough to enable the party to do well enough to at least govern some of our metros next year remains to be seen.
The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) will be looking to go for the ANC’s jugular, with the Grand Old Party of South African politics increasingly looking like a wounded buffalo. However, the EFF has also acted in a bizarre fashion during the Covid lockdown, calling for a harsh lockdown to continue, despite the damage it has done to the livelihoods of ordinary people. The lockdown has also meant that the party lost one of the most formidable weapons in its arsenal – the spectacle of disrupting Parliament. Without that, the party has lost much of its mojo, but could well benefit from the post-Covid economic fallout.
A dark horse could be Herman Mashaba and his new political party, due to be launched later this month. He has put forward a platform which could appeal to the moderate majority of South Africans who are turned off by the ANC’s failings, the EFF’s radicalism, and the DA’s baggage. A number of high-profile people linked to the DA have already defected to Mashaba’s movement, the latest being Abel Tau, the party’s chairman in Tshwane.
Mashaba’s new party won’t win any municipalities but it could do well enough to be the kingmaker in some of our major cities.
Despite the flaws in opposition parties, the ANC has so bungled its handling of the Covid pandemic that it seems inevitable it will lose support in 2021. This makes the mutterings of a possible postponement of next year’s elections even more sinister. Proposals from the ANC (supported by the EFF) suggest holding elections for three levels of government on the same day, with the municipal elections only being held in 2024. This would mean that the terms of local councillors would be longer than World War II, or as long as two American Presidential terms. In addition, it would be disgraceful if the residents of places like NMB and Tshwane have to wait until 2024 to vote again, given how dysfunctional the councils of those cities has been.
South African voters are not automatons who mechanically vote for a party because its leaders have the same level of melanin. They are often more sophisticated than analysts give them credit for and their material circumstances often affect their vote, and the evidence for that is growing.
Voters gave the ANC a shot across the bow in 2016. 2021 might be the year that the ANC battleship takes a direct hit.