South Africans love messiahs. Our politics has often been made up of a longing for a messiah to save us from our present turmoil. 

Think of our presidents over the years: everyone recognizes the messianic way in which Nelson Mandela is talked about. Some of it is perhaps deserved, but it is not only Mandela who has been hailed as a South African messiah. Who could forget Thabo Mbeki’s project of African renaissance with himself as leader, a man to lead Africa into the modern age, a messiah who would rescue Africa from its centuries of humiliation. Also remember that when Jacob Zuma rose to power, there were some who praised him as a breath of fresh air, a man of the people, who would rescue South Africa from the out-of-touch, AIDS-denying intellectual Mbeki. Of course, the latest incarnation of this idea is that of “Saint Cyril”: the less said about that the better.  

Not just an ANC phenomenon

Before you think that this phenomenon is just an ANC one, when Mmusi Maimane began his meteoric rise in the DA, there were many in the DA who whispered of him as “the one” who would finally liberate the country from the ANC. It’s not only the two grand old parties who suffer from this affliction.  I find it difficult not to see parallels in how some ActionSA supporters talk about Herman Mashaba. This is a phenomenon likely to become only more apparent as time passes.  

It is perhaps because of this messianic complex that South Africans expect some great messiah to save the country from the clutches of the ANC-EFF complex. A mighty lion, like Aslan from the Narnia chronicles, could rush in and take down the ANC, but as incoming IRR CEO John Endres explains in his piece “The buffalo and the wild dogs”, our recent local government elections suggest that there will be no messianic lion.   However a pack of squabbling wild dogs may end up bringing down the ANC and its EFF offspring. With this in mind, let’s look at the battle between the wild dogs and the old ANC buffalo.  

There are few quick and easy narratives to spin about the elections, except to say that voter turnout was very low, at around 46%, and that the ANC did very badly, dropping eight percentage points from its performance in 2016 and 12 points from its 2019 performance (that drop being as much to do with the different nature of national elections as a genuine drop in ANC support). 

 As for control of municipalities, the ANC lost control of a significant number of municipalities, especially in Gauteng but also in some rural areas such as the municipality around Harrismith and uMngeni. In the space of one election, the ANC went from a seemingly invincible hegemonic force in the minds of many commentators to an ailing beast, dangerous, but sickly.  

The buffalo may need to rely on its young calf

The ANC will now be forced to rely on its young calf the EFF for help in many metros across the country. The EFF for its part didn’t have a great election. Whilst they were up from their last municipal election by two percentage points, they were down around 0.5 percentage points from their 2019 performance. In some of their strongholds such as Polokwane, they were down six percentage points from 2016 and in Johannesburg they shrank by around half a percentage point. Most of their growth was a result of their rise in support in areas like Durban where they were virtually non-existent in 2016.  

For my peace of mind, the halting of the EFF’s growth this election is the best news possible. One of the most disastrous roads that South Africa could have gone down was one where the weakening of the ANC was entirely due to the strengthening of the EFF, and where South Africa was destined to slide into (as Marius Roodt puts it) Venababwe (Venezuela + Zimbabwe). This was however not very likely, as IRR polling has consistently shown that South Africans are by and large conservative and moderate. It’s undeniable, the ANC-EFF bloc has suffered a major defeat in this election. In 2024 it is set to have to fight for its life.  

Pack of wild dogs

But what of the wild dogs?  

The DA is surely disappointed in its results, down by about five percentage points from 2016, but about one point up from 2019. It seems that the DA has stabilized since 2019, after it pulled back from the disastrous ANC-lite path that Maimane and some of the provincial leaders had promoted. However, it should be worried by the loss to ActionSA of around 15% of its suburban votes in its strongholds of Johannesburg and Pretoria and its loss of support all around the country to the Freedom Front Plus. Nevertheless, it could have been much worse, and the DA remains the dominant force in the country’s middle-class suburbs. The DA should also be worried, perhaps more so, by its loss of support to what could fairly be described as coloured nationalist parties such as the Patriotic Alliance and the Cape Coloured Congress. These parties are also a key reason for the overall drop in DA support. Winning back these voters to a non-racial party is very important in South Africa. In a country bearing the scars of white nationalism and suffering under a black nationalist government, the last thing we need is coloured nationalism adding to our woes. The DA now sits in a powerful position despite its electoral losses, as it remains the leader of the opposition and will define a large part of coalition politics going forward. If it uses this position skilfully it will see itself strengthened in 2024.  

The standout result of the election was the surprising success of ActionSA, particularly in Jo’burg. In that city it managed to draw some support away from the DA, but the truly remarkable result was its success in some of Johannesburg’s townships, where it captured around 20% of the vote in many ANC strongholds, and greatly contributed to the ANC’s collapse in South Africa’s biggest and richest city. The party even managed to be placed third in Johannesburg, with 16% of the vote in the city. Whilst this is better than I expected them to do, there are some caveats that should be noted, Firstly, during the campaign ActionSA claimed it was polling in first place in Johannesburg with 30% or more of the vote, something that was supported by no other polls, as far as I know.  If one were to believe their campaign rhetoric, then 16% is a shocking result. The other caveat is that ActionSA ran in relatively few municipalities. Its 16% in Jo’burg was a highlight. In Tshwane it managed 8,6%, in Ekurhuleni 6.6% and in Newcastle and eThekwini, 3.5% and 2% respectively, showing that the party has yet to prove itself outside of central Gauteng.  

The party has also yet to prove what it’s really about. On paper its policy sounds a lot like the DA, but is clouded by references to vague terms like “social justice,” a phrase which can mean a great many things. It is confused further by Mashaba’s bizarre continued praise of the EFF. I suspect that in this election ActionSA benefited from relatively little media scrutiny and from the fact that voters fed up with the big parties were willing to project on to it whatever they wished to see. The next few years will see ActionSA define itself, and how it does that will leave it either standing tall in the anti-ANC coalition or shattered like COPE and Agang before it.  

Whilst ActionSA is the headline-grabbing party, much of the ANC’s collapse around the country was due to the emergence of many small local parties, such as Map16 in Harrismith, the Setsoto Service Delivery Forum in the Free State, and the Abantu Batho Congress, primarily in KwaZulu-Natal – a death by 1000 cuts. Many of these small parties come originally from factional splits in the ANC but are now finding themselves unexpectedly empowered and in some cases even able to take power. Whilst born of an ANC-ideological world view, these parties may yet form part of the anti-ANC bloc which ultimately takes the party out of power.  

Although many have been waiting for a knight in shining armour to ride in and save the country, the truth is we are a diverse (in far more than just racial terms) nation with many fractious and energetic groups, and as the ANC falls, we are seeing the real political South Africa underneath: a divided country, but one that is set to throw off the yoke of the National Democratic Revolution so long as the opposition plays its part well. With no messiah to save us, politics for the next decade is sure to be messy, wild, and exciting, but in the end the flea-bitten wild dogs might yet save South Africa from its current predicament.  

If you like what you have just read, support the Daily Friend