South Africa – Local government elections shake up the political landscape

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South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa

The Electoral Commission officially pronounced the results of the 1 November Local Government Election (LGE) on 4 November, resulting in a substantively altered political landscape in South Africa as the country looks to the national general election in 2024. The most noteworthy result is that the ANC fell below 50% of the national vote for the first time since the start of the democratic era in 1994 ‒ garnering only 46.05% of votes. Had had this been a general election, the party would have been forced to form a formal coalition government in order to remain in power. The 50% mark has long been considered an important psychological milestone which now marks the ANC as fallible and vulnerable in 2024.

The LGE also resulted in at least 66 of South Africa’s 278 municipalities having no clear winner (with some reports counting up to 70). This is over double the number of hung councils following the 2016 LGE. Significantly, five of the eight metropolitan municipalities returned no clear winning party meaning that Johannesburg, Tshwane, Ekurhuleni, Nelson Mandela Bay (NMB), and eThekwini will all be run by coalition municipal governments. In fact, given the spread of the hung municipalities, over 20 million South Africans will live in municipalities governed by coalitions over the next five years.

As evidenced by the past five years following the 2016 LGE, these coalition governments can be incredibly unstable. Especially, given that many municipalities – such as Ekurhuleni – will only be able to form a government if two of the three major parties (ANC, DA, and EFF) can agree to work together. The DA has already indicated that it would refuse to do so given its negative experience following its 2016 alliance with the EFF and the fact that its voters are opposed to any deal with the ANC. As result, this election could push the ANC and the EFF closer together out of necessity. The EFF is desperate to have some role at a governance level in an effort to prove that it is a serious political party, and the ANC is desperate to preserve power where it can. However, such an alliance will likely come with preconditions with national ramifications, such as the EFF seeking to push its land expropriation agenda in return for securing the ANC power in major municipalities.

This election was defined by poor performances by the three major parties and the emergence of smaller and hyper-local parties as significant political forces. These have included the rise of nationalistic and ethnic-based parties. The Zulu-nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) has enjoyed a major revival in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) returning its best election result since 2006. It won control of nine municipal councils and is the leading party in 16 others where it is ideally placed to form coalitions to cement control. The Afrikaner nationalist Vryheid Front Plus (VF+) has continued to garner support amongst white Afrikaner voters hurting the DA in its strongholds across the country, including in the Western Cape. In fact, the DA shed significant support to a variety of ethnic-based parties. In addition to losing votes to the VF+, the DA also saw its support among coloured communities in Gauteng, the Western Cape, and the Northern Cape fall dramatically as these voters turned to parties such as the Cape Coloured Congress (CCC) and the Patriotic Alliance (PA), which had campaigns focused on winning support from coloured communities and elevating the concerns of these voters. The DA, in general, saw a notable decline in voters of colour across the country. Its share of the vote in the Soweto area of Johannesburg was more than halved. These, predominantly black, voters have shifted support from the DA to the newly formed ActionSA.

ActionSA was one of the breakout successes of the LGE. The party was only officially formed in 2020 by former DA Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba. The party built a solid campaign infrastructure and despite only contesting in six municipalities in two provinces, secured 2.36% of the vote nationally making it the sixth-largest party in the country. ActionSA performed particularly well in Gauteng where it won 16.05% of the vote in Johannesburg, 8.64% in Tshwane, and 6.60% in Ekurhuleni. The party will likely play the role of kingmaker in both Johannesburg and Tshwane. This standout performance has given the party a strong footing to build towards the 2024 national election where it will likely be a decisive player in Gauteng with strong showings in KZN and the Western Cape as well. The party’s centre-right pro-business outlook and lack of racial political baggage make it ideally placed to draw away significant amounts of the DA’s support. Importantly, the fact that ActionSA has proven it can secure votes in both townships and suburbs will make it a strong contender in urban areas in 2024. This party’s next biggest test will be how well it navigates the coalition negotiations with the DA. ActionSA has already declared that it will not govern with the ANC.

In addition to changing how voters perceive the political landscape and the vulnerability of the major parties, the LGE results will affect the internal dynamics of the three major parties as well. The ANC’s poor performance will fuel the factional tensions within the party. The so-called radical economic transformation (RET) faction is already seeking to pin the poor results on President Cyril Ramaphosa, hoping to frame the election as a referendum on Ramaphosa’s leadership and use it to advocate for his early removal from office. This is despite the fact that Ramaphosa is more popular and trusted than his party and his personal brand and campaigning efforts likely prevented an even more disastrous result. It should also be noted that the ANC did not so much lose voters this election as simply not have them. The party’s strongholds witnessed the lowest voter turnout on record in what were clearly intentional abstentions by ANC supporters in protest of the party’s poor performance in local government over the years. The ruling party knows it will need to find ways to connect and galvanise its base once again before 2024 or risk losing power nationally.

The DA also had a poor election, it secured 386 fewer council seats and lost its majority in eight municipalities. Notably, this includes the Cape Agulhas municipality which is considered the best governed in the country. This indicates that the DA’s political brand has become so toxic that even its strong governing record cannot prevent it from shedding votes. The DA is unlikely to internalise any of the lessons from these elections. This is evidenced by the party’s efforts to compare its 2021 LGE results to the 2019 national election rather than the 2016 LGE. Despite the inherent flaws in comparing these two different types of elections, the DA typically overperforms in the LGE where street-level governance trumps political ideology. The party’s mediocre showing in this year’s LGE indicates that it is on track for a very poor 2024 election where it will have to contend with ActionSA across the country. The party’s collapse with black and coloured voters also confirms that unless the DA fundamentally changes how it engages with the public, it will remain a party in decline.

The EFF’s LGE performance is significant in that it was unremarkable. The party registered a small increase in its vote share from 8.19% in 2016 to 10.42% in 2021. However, the EFF was expected to perform much better given its record of being able to mobilise its supporters and the fact that this election had a record low voter turnout. This election confirmed the EFF’s struggles in managing to maintain its core supporters while simultaneously reaching out to other voters. It also indicates the limits of populist appeal to the South African electorate.

Although the LGE will result in political instability in the short-to-medium term, the results arguably portend positive trends in the country’s politics. The major parties are waning as a dominating force and the country is moving towards the more pluralistic politics envisioned by the Constitution and for which the system was set up. The need to form coalitions incentivises compromise and limits the damaging impact of winner-takes-all politics.

ERA

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