The ANC stands astride South Africa’s politics like a colossus. To be sure, it’s not the force it was in the early parts of this century, when it won nearly 70% of the national vote and was the biggest party in each province and governed all our major cities, but it is still by far the most popular party in the country.
It governs eight out of nine provinces, and after last year’s local government election (LGE) it was still the single biggest party in seven of the eight metro municipalities, and the single biggest party in every municipality in Limpopo, Mpumalanga, North West, Free State, and the Northern Cape.
However, it’s clear that the party is beginning to haemorrhage votes at a rapid pace. The main beneficiaries of the ANC’s loss of votes in the 2021 LGE were generally not the second and third biggest parties in the country – the DA and the EFF – but rather smaller, community or local parties.
And if we examine the ANC’s vote share in recent elections, particularly local government elections, it is clear that voters are jumping ship. For example, in Johannesburg last year, the ANC won just below a third of the vote. Only two elections before, in 2011, it had won nearly 60% of the vote. And even if we combine the ANC vote with that of its EFF offspring, in 2021 the combined vote share of the two parties was below 45%.
The pattern is the same across the country, especially in South Africa’s urban areas, with the ANC rapidly losing support.
Rents and resources
At the same time, the ANC now only exists to extract rents and resources and distribute patronage.
The reasons for its establishment – to combat racism and the exclusion of the South African majority from the political and economic system of the country – were noble, but once it assumed power it soon simply became a vehicle for patronage. In the initial period of ANC governance things did improve for most South Africans. The economy stabilised, unemployment began to decrease, and basic services were expanded to millions of South Africans.
This ended, however, with the capture of the party in 2009 by elements which had always been present, but now had the upper hand, and could turn the party into a vehicle for looting and distribution of patronage.
Once a party like the ANC, wanting power in order to extract resources and with no real ideological thread holding it together, loses power or has its claws removed from the patronage taps, it soon begins to lose coherence. This has happened to other hegemonic parties in Africa, such as the United National Independence Party in Zambia and the Kenya African National Union in that country. In South Africa an example would be the National Party, which after it lost power was ineffectual in opposition, and ceased to exist within eleven years of being kicked out of government in 1994.
Even the ANC’s own experience in the Western Cape shows what can happen once it is removed from the resource and patronage taps. In 2004 the party won 45% of the vote, narrowly missing out on a majority, and governed with the help of the New National Party (which formally became part of the ANC the following year).
However, the voters of the Western Cape turfed the party out in the following election and in the most recent election in the province, it won less than 30% of the vote. In last year’s local government elections its aggregate vote in the province was even worse, at only 20%.
This is likely why the party has engaged in increasingly dubious tactics to regain power in metros where it was thrown out after last year’s municipal polls. Media reports indicate that councillors have been bribed, cajoled, and intimidated to break coalition agreements in various municipalities, in order to let the ANC once again have control over the purse strings.
The ANC is desperate, because it knows that without access to resources and other forms of patronage there is nothing holding the whole rotten mess together. Apartheid, the great enemy, was defeated decades ago, and the nature of the ANC as something of a ‘big tent’ party means that there is no real ideological glue holding it together.
But the ANC should begin to worry, and it’s now increasingly a question of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’, it will join UNIP, KANU, and the NP in the dustbin of history.
An election in Lesotho last week shows how establishment parties in southern Africa cannot be complacent. A party that was only established in March, Revolution for Prosperity (RFP), emerged as the single biggest party in the mountain kingdom’s election, winning nearly 40% of the vote and 56 of the 120 seats up for grabs. By contrast, the parties which had dominated the previous election suffered a bloody nose and were almost wiped out in some cases.
In 2017, the All Basotho Convention (ABC) won 40% of the vote, and 48 of the 120 seats in parliament, followed by the Democratic Congress (DC), with 26% of the vote and 30 seats, and the Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD), which won 11 seats and 9% of the vote.
However, in last week’s election, these three parties saw their collective vote share collapse from nearly 75% to only a third. Only the DC emerged with its reputation somewhat intact, coming second to the RFP, with 29 seats and a quarter of the vote. The ABC collapsed to 7% and eight seats, while the LCD was practically wiped out, winning only 2% of the vote and three out of the 120 parliamentary seats.
This should be a message to the ANC (but also South Africa’s more established parties) that voters can be fickle. Lesotho’s recent election shows this, as does the ANC’s collapsing support across South Africa. There are numerous examples from around the world: hegemonic, popular parties can often lose support rapidly.
South Africa is now at the end of the period of ANC rule. We could be in the next phase of South Africa’s political development – multi-party politics, with the ANC being a minor player or even non-existent – sooner than we think.
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