Towards the end of the negotiated transition to democracy in South Africa, Nelson Mandela famously said ‘if the ANC does to you what the apartheid government did to you, then you must do to the ANC what you did to the apartheid government’. This quote was recently employed by Mmusi Maimane the current leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA), South Africa’s main opposition party, during his speech at the DA’s final rally before local elections, which were held recently on 3 August. The results of these elections indicate that an increasing number of South Africans are putting Mandela’s words into practice, despite the repeated assertion by Jacob Zuma (the current President) that the ANC will rule ‘until Jesus comes back’.
The 2016 vote resulted in a national picture that saw the ANC’s share of the vote fall by 8%, in comparison to the last municipal elections in 2011, to a historic low of 53.9%. The DA secured 26.9% to cement their place as the leading opposition party, while the Economic Freedom Fighters, only formed in 2013, were third overall with 8.2%.
Beyond these headline figures an even more challenging picture emerges for the ANC’s electoral future. A significant rural-urban divide is developing in voting patterns. Of the eight metropolitan municipalities, which include all of South Africa’s major cities, the DA held Cape Town with an impressive two-thirds of the vote and became the leading party in Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth) and Tshwane (Pretoria). It has also gained control of Johannesburg, despite trailing the ANC in second place, because it has managed to secure the votes of the EFF and other smaller parties. Meanwhile, the ANC now only have overall control of three of the eight metros. Like many other countries in the developing world South Africa is experiencing rapid urbanisation. According to the government’s recently published Integrated Urban Development Framework 63% of South Africa’s citizens live in urban areas and this is projected to increase to over 70% by 2030. Hence, the urban vote is going to become increasingly significant in the future.
It appears that the ANC’s reliance on its credentials as a liberation movement is increasingly losing currency with South African voters. This ‘liberation legacy’ is something that the ANC has relied upon in its campaign strategies for both the most recent local elections and the national poll in 2014. It is therefore unsurprising that some research conducted by a team at the University of Johannesburg, suggests that the ANC is relying increasingly on the support of older voters, whereas the two main opposition parties appeal most to younger voters.
Much of the debate since the 3 August poll, both within and outside the ANC, has focused on whether the decline in support for the ANC is because of the increasingly toxic reputation of President Zuma, or whether it is a verdict on the ANC’s broader record on human development. South Africa continues to face the triple challenge of a very high unemployment rate, rising income inequality and persistent levels of poverty. It appears that the initial debriefing within the ANC’s national executive committee refuses to accept either explanation. Any suggestion that the blame rests with Zuma is certainly not being made public and in fact the conclusion seems to be simply that some ANC voters stayed at home and that all the party needs to do is address their concerns. In fact, the turnout in the most recent poll was 58%, which is consistent with the figure for the previous local elections held in 2011.
Many analysts (e.g. Justice Malala) have celebrated the outcome of the recent municipal elections arguing that they are good for democracy in South Africa. It is certainly the case, from a procedural point of view at least, that having a less dominant ANC may well result in a more accountable ruling class. However, given the development challenges faced by South Africa, I would argue that what is most necessary is an effective leftist political programme. As a recent Afrorbarometer poll suggests, a majority of South African citizens would be in favour of the creation of a new workers’ party.
The EFF are at present the only effective electoral force offering something resembling such a programme, however, in reality they offer a populist blend of African nationalism and class-based politics. After the local elections the EFF faced the dilemma of being a potential kingmaker in a number of municipalities. It declared it would not enter into any formal coalition with either the ANC or the DA but it did decide to vote to support the DA’s candidate for mayor in Johannesburg. Given how orthodox the DA’s economic policies are, this is a decision that is remarkably inconsistent with the EFF’s radical leftist rhetoric.