South Africa: African National Congress faces setback in local elections

TSHWANE, SOUTH AFRICA – Interest in countries’ local elections is usually confined within state borders, while national elections nearly always attract international attention. Not so South Africa’s municipal elections on August 3, which made headlines around the world.

The elections saw the ruling African National Congress (ANC) lose its outright majorities in half of the country’s eight urban hubs, the metropolitan municipalities of Tshwane (Pretoria), Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni, and Nelson Mandela Bay. The major ascendant parties are the conservative Democratic Alliance (DA) and the left-populist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). A massive 204 political parties contested the elections, 68 percent more than at the last ones, in 2011.

Turning point for Mandela’s ANC

The election results mark a major turning point in the country’s narrative since the end of apartheid in 1994.

That was when the country had its first ever democratic elections and the country’s once-banned liberation movement, the African National Congress, headed by an already iconic Nelson Mandela rode to power with massive support, and not just from the previously disenfranchised black majority but also symbolically from much of the outside world.

Given the strength of global anti-apartheid solidarity during South Africa’s liberation struggle, it is no wonder that the country’s ongoing efforts to overcome the malevolent legacies of colonialism and apartheid are keenly watched abroad.

But in the intervening 22 years since 1994, the ANC seems to be increasingly haunted by what the organization itself sometimes coyly refers to as “the sins of incumbency”.

Despite a strong showing in tackling underdevelopment and the worst of apartheid-generated mass poverty – building millions of units of free public housing (known as Reconstruction and Development Programme, or RDP, houses), millions of electricity and safe water connections for poor households, big investments in public healthcare and education – social and economic transformation has been slow.

Part of the problem is that the ANC is often the only game in town, particularly at the provincial and local levels, and has become a magnet for networks of patronage often centered on lucrative tendering processes. Corruption is systemic. It determines how much of the basics of social development – such as the distribution of free social housing units – gets done.

One small local example illustrates this. Many indigent residents in Block F of the northern Tshwane township of Soshanguve have been waiting upward of 11 years to receive their free RDP houses. For a fee, the ward councilor in charge of Block F can cut this dire waiting time to a matter of months. Most people can’t afford the bribe, so they’re still waiting to move away from the overcrowded four-room homes they share with relatives to new houses being built on the outer limits of Tshwane. The ward councilor lives in an extended and renovated house in Block F. She wasn’t a candidate in the recent local elections, but her son-in-law was and he’ll be the new ward councilor.

This is not the pattern everywhere but it is a familiar one and it reflects some of the rot that has become institutionalized in local government.

Some ANC-controlled municipalities have performed well through the years. Most have mixed records. Soshanguve and other townships around Tshwane are definitely in better shape than they were in 1994. But as the daily protests against poor or scant services testify, demand far outweighs supply.

The ANC had a thin professional base to work with after it took over the structures of government in 1994 and sought to reshape them to meet the needs of the whole population, and not a mainly white affluent minority.

This is one reason why tenders for government contracts have become such big business, and why technocratic efficiency is unevenly spread and easily enmeshed in chains of patronage and networks of nepotism. The situation has been worsened by the exodus of qualified people leaving local government work to join the private sector because they are fed up with public sector mismanagement.

Corruption and scandal

The ANC has also been blighted by numerous long drawn-out scandals involving President Jacob Zuma. The most recent involved state spending on security upgrades to his personal home at Nkandla that included non-security comforts. These included a swimming pool, amphitheater, clinic, visitors center, and refurbished cattle enclosure. The Public Protector investigated the matter and recommended that the President repay some of the costs.

He balked at the suggestion, and after some time the police minister issued a report saying that all upgrades were for security purposes. A swimming pool, for instance, was really a fire pool, it was claimed. But when the Constitutional Court ruled that Zuma had violated the Constitution by not complying with the Public Protector’s findings, he did an about turn. He apologized on national TV and offered to repay the misspent millions, leaving those who had defended him looking stupid.

Zuma’s penchant for sudden changes of course sent shockwaves through the country’s fragile economic position internationally when he hired and fired three finance ministers in a single week last December.

A more noxious scandal concerns state capture by big business. A case in point is the president’s unhealthily close relationship with the billionaire Gupta family.

Back in 2011, the bulletin Southern Africa Report revealed, “Trade union federation COSATU is angered both by what it sees as the profits flowing, at the expense of ordinary South Africans, to the Guptas’ patronage-driven involvement in the state’s R800-billion infrastructure development.”

That the Guptas see South Africa as theirs to play with was made clear in 2013 when they used the Waterkloof Air Force Base, the country’s main military air installation, to bring in 200 guests from India for a wedding party. Since then, there have been numerous allegations that the family influences ministerial appointments to advance its extensive business operations.

All this has compounded the public perception that the ANC in general, and the president in particular, are steeped in corruption. It’s an image often fuelled by a hostile, right-wing media, which lambasts the party and the government to the point of wild generalization.

Even more damaging to the moral standing of ANC in objective terms was the police massacre of striking miners at Marikana in 2012, and the subsequent lack of sanctions against those responsible.

Can the ANC regain voters’ confidence?

Media hype about the municipal election results has tended to give the impression that the ANC lost across the board. Yet it still has majorities in seven of the country’s nine provinces, including in the Eastern Cape, home to the Nelson Mandela Bay metro where it lost to the DA.

Counter to some of the analysis in the press in the election aftermath, the ANC has not lost more in urban areas while holding onto rural ones and thereby becoming a ‘rural party’. The big urban townships remain ANC strongholds, while actual decline in support for the party has been most marked in rural provinces such as Free State and North West.

Its biggest loss, though, was in the country’s most populous province, Gauteng, home to Tshwane and Johannesburg, where it took 45.8 percent of the vote compared to 59.7 percent at the last local elections in 2011. Nationally, the ANC garnered 53.9 percent of the vote compared to the DA’s 26.9 percent. In 2011, the tally was 61.9 percent for the ANC and 23.9 for the DA. There were 26 million registered voters this year, three million more than in 2011, while voter turnout was 57.9 percent this year, compared to 57.8 in 2011.

The four metros where the ANC lost the 50 percent majority needed to govern are all hung councils. The DA got more votes than the ANC in Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay and so is in a position to decide on whom it will work with in coalition in those metros. The ANC, on the other hand, is negotiating coalition councils in Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni, where it fared better than the DA.

But the ANC faces big uncertainties. Will it be able to regain the confidence of voters by cleaning up its act and refocusing on its pledges to transform South Africa socially and economically in the spirit of the 1955 Freedom Charter and the letter of its detailed policy documents? What would it take for the ANC to purge itself of the factionalism, corruption, and mismanagement that have so undermined people’s confidence in it? In short, how will it deal with the fallout of its eroded support and the rising power of the opposition DA and EFF?

In its analysis of the election results, the South African Communist Party (SACP), which is part of a tripartite alliance of the ANC and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), warned that the ANC faces declining support unless it changes course.

“If the ANC still remains the electoral choice of a majority of the South African electorate, the steady decline in support over recent elections, and now a precipitous decline, indicates that, unless serious soul searching and corrective action is undertaken, the decline will continue and likely accelerate.

“It is absolutely essential that these corrective actions are themselves undertaken in a sober, unifying, and non-sectarian manner.” But the SACP warned, “already there are signs that some in the ANC are bent on doing the exact opposite… All leadership collectives, including all ANC provincial leaderships, need to shoulder responsibility, rather than pointing fingers at each other. Likewise, at the national level, it is important that an honest assessment is undertaken. To what extent have national errors affected local electoral behavior?”

ANC’s conservative opponents have no plan for improvement

What of the opposition DA? Despite the reams of press coverage of the DA’s mushrooming support, mold-breaking gains, and verve for clean governance and efficient services, the party’s main platform at the elections has been its opposition to the ANC. Its manifesto and policy documents are wish lists of across-the-board improvements in every area of life, most of which are things that are already happening but need to be done better. But there’s precious little substance on how it intends to do this. The DA ran its local election campaign wholly on an anti-ANC ticket.

The one metro it controls, Cape Town, is often lauded as a role model of service delivery efficiency, and the party has repeatedly boasted that it spends a whopping 67 percent of its budget on poor communities. But analyses of the city’s 2014-15 budget by the number-crunching organization Africa Check show that the real figure was 49 percent, a rough estimate given that such expenditure cannot be isolated.

Though the DA says that all poor households have access to water and sanitation, in the overcrowded townships of the Cape Flats on the fringes of Cape Town, many residents have to use communal portable-type toilets and communal taps, and sewage runs in the streets.

DA policy, insofar that it’s presented in any detail, contains familiar neoliberal recipes that posit trickle-down effect high economic growth (8 percent) as the driver for tackling poverty, dismantling big labour unions in favour of atomized employee representation, getting employers to take on young people at reduced pay rates in the name of work experience, public sector roll-back, putting more public services in the hands of private producers, and making business development the basis for tackling the country’s 35 percent broad unemployment rate.

There is nothing in such policies attuned to tackling the massive problems of poverty and underdevelopment that characterize the situation of the majority of communities in South Africa. Despite its attempts to portray itself as a multi-racial ‘color-blind’ party, the DA’s original support base is among the wealthy white section of the population. Though it has attracted more support among the new black bourgeoisie, the DA is still regarded by its critics as the party of white privilege.

The only other political party to make any significant gains at the local elections was the Economic Freedom Fighters (EEF), a largely demagogic outfit that mimics much of the rhetoric of the South African Communist Party. Though ideologically remote from the DA, the EFF may end up in coalition with it in Tshwane, and it may club together with the ANC in Johannesburg.

For its part, the DA has said that it won’t go into coalition with the ANC ostensibly because it is simply too corrupt and compromised, though it is more likely that having campaigned almost wholly on an anti-ANC platform the DA daren’t risk appearing cynical by suddenly surrendering its artfully assembled moral high ground.

SACP: ANC cannot live on its laurels forever

Despite the gains made by the DA and the EFF at the polls, it was perhaps the stay-away factor that most harmed the ANC in the townships. The party’s poor performance in municipal government coupled with such things as its heavy-handed imposition of outside candidates over local favorites, which in Tshwane led to violent protests at the end of June, are key reasons why people didn’t bother voting.

For the SACP, the message for the ANC and the tripartite alliance is unambiguous:

“The core lesson that the ANC in particular and its alliance partners in general need to take to heart is that our core constituencies, our historical support base, have sent a powerful message. The message is quite clear: Don’t take us for granted. Don’t assume that your struggle credentials will forever act as an excuse for arrogance and predatory behavior in the present. Don’t marginalize us while being preoccupied with your own internal factional battles, your list processes, your personality and money-driven rivalries. Don’t impose unpopular and discredited candidates on us, based on factional calculations about next year’s ANC elective conference.”

Photo: A young South African man walks past a weathered campaign poster featuring South African president and ANC leader, Jacob Zuma, in the Soweto township of Johannesburg, May 9, 2014. Ben Curtis | AP


Mark Waller
Mark Waller

Originally from Helsinki, Mark Waller lives in the City of Tshwane, South Africa. He writes on events in South Africa and other countries on the continent, and translates from Finnish to English.