CAPE TOWN - The relative success of the Democratic Alliance (DA) in South Africa's local elections of 18 May 2011, as also the noticeable decline in the vote of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has posed many questions and possibilities.
The first point to notice is that turnout was sharply up from 48.4% in 2006 to 57.6% in 2011 - an increase from 9,852,099 votes cast to 13,353,987 votes cast. This very large (over 35%) jump in turnout levels is most uncommon in local elections anywhere in the world. This is in itself a strong indication of what is happening.
In effect most South Africans regard the follies and corruption of national elite-level politics as something they can only sigh about. Both the ANC and DA have deliberately de-emphasised the role of Parliament - neither of their party leaders actually sit there - which as a result has been diminished to a degree where the press hardly bother with it and where the names of frontbenchers on either side are obscure to almost everyone. This in turn has had the perverse effect of presidentialising politics far more than before.
Thus, for example, under the previous DA leadership of Tony Leon (and Leon did sit in Parliament) all the DA frontbenchers were extremely prominent and well-known. Now their names are unknown and the party is wholly identified with its leader, Helen Zille, while the second best known figure is the party's new mayor of Cape Town, Patricia De Lille who, again, is not an MP.
Typically, the DA posters featured three women - Zille, De Lille and spokesperson Lindiwe Mazibuko. De Lille was there because she and Zille had made a private deal for De Lille to become mayor, while Mazibuko was there because she was a Zille appointee. The ANC posters featured Jacob Zuma, who was not a candidate at any level at all.
Unable to effect any change in the incompetence and venality of their national leaders, South Africa's voters have instead focused far more on service delivery at a local level - something of immediate importance in people's daily lives and something they can actually hope to influence. This has been noticeable both in the literally thousands of riots and protests against poor service delivery in towsnships and squatter camps and in the DA's strong emphasis on their own superior performance in local government.
Moreover, under Zille the DA has settled for a quite public strategy of attempting to conquer local power first in the Western Cape, then hope to use that as a springboard to win local power elsewhere in South Africa and only finally to offer a national-level challenge to the ANC.
Given this strategy, the municipal elections were actually the real elections for the DA, and the logic of this challenge was taken up by the ANC which, in the end, was able to contain the DA challenge by pushing up its own turnout as well. Nonetheless, the ANC declined from 65.7% of the vote in 2006 to 62% now, while the DA surged from 16.3% to 23.9%.
As will be seen, this meant that the two party share of the vote - even at municipal level, which encourages all manner of independents and small parties - increased from 82% in 2006 to 85.9%. This increasing two party polarization - which led to the decimation of most of the smaller parties - is quite extraordinary in what is the most extreme proportional system in the world.
All the structural and institutional incentives are towards multiparty proliferation, yet the opposite is happening. This is simply because the political culture is so much more powerful and because it has been moulded by decades of polarity between the System and the Struggle.
To be sure, the two sides have been swapped over but the electorate's sense of dualism remains. At popular level one normally finds that voters usually think simply in terms of "the old regime" and "the new regime", and the ANC tries hard to insist that the DA is identical to the old regime. In fact, of course, the DA and its lineal ancestors were very much opposed to the old regime and no one at all really wants the return of the old regime (apartheid), but that is less important than this underlying sense of dualism. In reality the ANC is now really the party of the System and the DA the party of Struggle against it. These are simply the forms of political life in which South Africans grew up and to which they are habituated.
This is why those commentators who have attempted to make a sharp differentiation between the DA of Tony Leon and his famous "Fight Back" campaign of 1999 on the one hand, and the supposedly softer and more inclusive style of Helen Zille on the other, have entirely missed the point.
In fact there is a perfectly continuous narrative linking the Leon and Zille periods. Leon's great achievement through the Fight Back campaign was to catapult the DA (then the DP) to its status as the main Opposition party. This in turn guaranteed that polarization works to its advantage. Zille has merely built on the platform thus created.
Moreover, Zille's rhetoric is in many ways even harder than Leon's - she accuses the new elite of being "blue light bullies" and of creating a failed state, accusations tougher than anything Leon made. But the logic of being the Struggle party, the one which attempts to incubate the new society within the womb of the old - once the ANC's "liberated zones", now the DA's successfully run municipalities - is really the continuous thread through both periods.
In that sense, every DA campaign is a "fight back" campaign. It rallies the Opposition against the rich and powerful ruling elite, just as the ANC once did. Naturally, the ANC greatly dislikes this role reversal but its problem is that the wealth and fecklessness of the new elite, its Lamborghini cars and Breitling watches, its five star luxury and its private jets, are there for all to see.
The electoral map is highly revealing, showing a spreading stain of DA municipalities moving outwards from Cape Town. Of the 30 municipalities in the Western Cape the ANC won only one, Beaufort West. The DA won 16 and will probably create majority coalitions in many of the rest. Beyond that, the sole DA municipality is Midvaal, won by a largely increased majority. It is true that the DA vote increased right across the country but the fact is that the Western Cape is now a DA country.
This is exactly how visitors from Jo'burg or Durban (or abroad) react: why, they say, it's like a different country here. Things work, the roads are mended, traffic lights operate, the litter is cleared, the verges get cut, the city centre still works. None of this is true where the ANC rules. No wonder the Western Cape is growing faster than the rest of the country, as people and businesses struggle to re-locate there.
This reflects several things. Most obviously, there is the swing of Coloured voters to the DA - so great that even in Mitchell's Plain the party garnered 80%. In effect what has happened is that the more sophisticated Cape Town Coloureds have moved to the DA and their country cousins have increasingly taken their lead from them, sending DA ripples all the way up the West Coast and up the Garden Route.
The logic is clearly of a further expansion of DA influence into the Northern Cape (with its Coloured majority). This election saw that process begin but it will continue. It also reflects the fact that under Zille the DA has become a Cape Town party. She herself is from Cape Town. So is Patricia De Lille. Lindiwe Mazibuko may be a Zulu, elected on the DA's KwaZulu-Natal list, but she was a student at UCT and has effectively become a Cape Town resident both as an MP and Zille's spokesperson.
The chairman of the party's Federal Executive, James Selfe, is a Capetonian and so is Wilmot James, the party's chairman. This is a party whose entire leadership lives within a square mile or two of one another. This is, of course, strongly self-reinforcing: it undoubtedly helped De Lille become, effectively, the party's No.2, and it leads many to tip Mazibuko as a future leader.
Under Zille, all leaders come from Cape Town. In addition, of course, all the DA's key support staff is there, some of them now employed in Zille's Western Cape administration. This provincialisation is, of course, a threat at one remove to the DA's national vocation.
However, it is important to realise that something similar is happening to the ANC, which is now ever more clearly head-quartered in KwaZulu-Natal. For the second election in a row, the ANC lost ground almost everywhere but gained in KZN, as the party feasted off the rotting remains of the Inkatha Freedom Party.
Much fuss was made this time of the relative success of the National Freedom Party, an IFP breakaway, but it is surely sensible to view the NFP as merely a stage in the decomposition of the IFP majority which ruled KZN until 2004. a process which seems certain to continue at least while Zulu votes can rally behind a Zulu President.
The enormous symbolic magnetism of that simple fact is, of course, greatly reinforced by a system of elite-level power and local patronage. This is particularly noticeable in two areas, Justice and Security, and Communications. Thus we find Zulus as Minister of Justice (Jeff Radebe), Sandile Ngcobo as Chief Justice, as chief of police (Bkeki Cele), as National Public Prosecutor (Menzi Simelane) as well as Lizo Njenje (head of the National Intelligence Agency) and Siyabonga Cwele (Minister of State Security).
In addition, of course, there are Zulu ministers at Home Affairs (Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma), Transport (Sbu Ndebele), Public Works (Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde) and Public Enterprises (Malusi Gigaba). The SACP is neatly folded into this Zulu hierarchy with the presence of its leader, Blade Nzimande, as Minister of Higher Education.
Finally, one must take cognizance of the fact that Durban Indian politicians who make it up to the higher levels of the ANC are inevitably men who throughout their careers move in a Zulu-dominated world, are beholden to Zulu political bosses and rely on Zulu votes to get elected. To all intents and purposes they are an extension of this Zulu network.
This applies to Pravin Gordhan, the Minister of Finance, as also Roy Padayachie, the Minister of Communications, seconded by another Zulu, Ben Ngubane, as head of the SABC.
The municipal elections saw the decay of the IFP taken a further stage by the breakaway of the NFP, though doubtless the larger narrative is the continuing collapse of the entire Zulu vote towards Zuma. This in turn has made the ANC more and more heavily dependent on the Zulu vote. At the ANC's September 2010 National General Council KwaZulu-Natal was the only province to report increased party membership, a fact which made it the ANC's biggest provincial branch.
Somewhere between a quarter and a third of all delegates to the NGC were Zulus, by far the largest single group. This in turn made any possibility of a challenge to Zuma's leadership somewhat remote. It is ironic that just as the ANC musters itself to celebrate the centenary of its founding in January 1912 this process of "Zulufication" is taking place, for the original point of the ANC was to put ethnic questions behind it.
"Zulufication" is a comforting process for the ANC at the moment, helping to staunch its losses. Thus in eThekwini (Durban) the ANC's vote has gone from 46.9% in 2000 to 57.6% in 2006 to 61.1% in 2011, and this last result on a high 59.3% turnout. In the longer term, however, it is obviously dangerous.
For one thing, it is liable to keep Jacob Zuma in power and these elections showed again that he enjoys no influence or respect among the nation's minorities. It could, moreover, make it difficult for the ANC to consider non-Zulus for the Presidency. It is true that after three consecutive Xhosa leaders a yet further period of Xhosa rule would have been greatly resented by other groups, but that does not mean that there is not a feeling of resentment and disempowerment among many Xhosa now.
Such feelings undoubtedly helped spark Cope's breakaway from the ANC and in 2011 may well have fed into the slump in the ANC vote in Nelson Mandela Bay Metropole (Port Elizabeth) where turnout this time soared to an extraordinary 81.2%. The ANC fell from 66.2% in 2006 to 51.9% while the DA soared from 24.4% to 40.1%.
Throughout the campaign the DA's tracking polls suggested that around 17% of African voters would vote for it this time, a huge leap from the 2% who previously had. In the last week or two of the campaign, however, the ANC moved into top gear, attempting to pull back such defectors by naked appeals to racial solidarity and, often, straightforward intimidation. Ever since 1994 it has used these two weapons to telling effect.
In 1994, for example, poll after poll suggested that at least 5% of the African vote on the Reef would go to the IFP and another 5% to De Klerk. In the event both minorities faded into virtual invisibility by polling day. It was the same this time with the DA ultimately taking only 5%-6% of the African vote. Even this, however, had to be accounted a considerable breakthrough. The DA vote was noticeably up in almost all black areas and the party even won a small number of all-African or mainly African wards.
Hence the conventional wisdom that the DA, having made this breakthrough, now stands poised to make further advances. The party's electorate is already 20% African, making its easily the most multi-racial party in the country and, indeed, in South Africa's history.
The ANC, naturally, continues to insist that the DA is a "white" party but whites now make up only 9.7% of the population while the DA scored 23.9%, so go figure. Although politicians of all stripes like to expound their allegiance to non-racialism, the fact is that a truly non-racial party is such a novelty in South Africa, where identity politics remains so strong that one should not take for granted the DA's continued growth along this path.
The notion is, clearly, that 17% of Africans came close to voting for the DA but only 5% or 6% did, which leaves 10% or more trembling on the brink. The DA's hope is that by the next election this group, buoyed by the sight of many Africans already having crossed the line into the DA and, doubtless, further alienated by ANC misbehaviour, will also cross that line - and so on. This narrative, in which the DA continues to gain and the ANC faces a downward slope, was widely accepted by the media in the wake of the elections.
The great question is, what will be the ANC's response to that prospect? Its initial response was simply denial: the ANC had won a great victory, the DA had merely taken votes from the small parties and the media were wrongly writing that up. In Cape Town, the ANC's losing mayoral candidate, Tony Ehrenreich, proclaimed himself "the mayor for the poor", grandly ignoring the fact that the Coloured working class, which he represents, had swung more massively than ever to the DA. But without doubt the ANC had had a bad fright.
Its early campaign had sputtered poorly and its own internal polling suggested the possibility of a major debacle. But in the end the party had even pulled out its vote in townships and settlements that had been racked by service delivery protests. This was not, however, quite as remarkable as it seemed for such protests invariably have their origins in factional conflicts within the ANC in any given area, with the "out" group furiously demonstrating against the looting and corruption by the "in" group, the objective simply being to replace the "in" group as beneficiaries.
These local squabbles over jobs, tenders and perks do not signify any lesser attachment to the ANC as the necessary vehicle which all of these groups hope to utilise to their own benefit.
In Midvaal, the DA's only outpost in Gauteng, where the ANC had made a particularly strong effort to roll back the Opposition, the DA won again by the healthy margin of 56.4% to 41.5%. Timothy Nast, the DA mayor commented that "We could not have won but for the black votes". This was a problem for the ANC which wished to argue that the DA had won by appealing to the racist fears of the minorities - a narrative spoilt by the DA's gains among Africans.
Immediately after the result an angry group of ANC supporters toured Midvaal's African areas, demanding to know how people had voted and vowing to burn down the houses of African DA voters. Within days President Zuma had ordered the Special Investigations Unit to carry out a probe into alleged corruption and misgovernance in Midvaal, a move which was difficult to interpret as other than punitive given that the Auditor-General has given Midvaal a clean bill of health for eight years in a row.
The same anger was evident in Port Elizabeth where the ANC's regional chairman, Nceba Faku, poured out his anger against the Eastern Province Herald (which had published articles linking Faku to corruption and tender irregularities). Faku called on his supporters to "burn the Herald down" and to "drive into the sea" black voters who had supported the DA. Luthuli House disavowed such sentiments and in the event the ANC's anger was vented in burning down the shops and houses of local Somali traders, for in South Africa anger in the streets is always likely to find a xenophobic outcome.
At Luthuli House the ANC Secretary-General, Gwede Mantashe, continued to rail against the media and also against the independent Municipal Demarcation Board which he accused of having altered ward boundaries in order to favour the DA. (In fact the MDB's brief is simply to ensure that wards remain of equal size despite demographic change.) Meanwhile the ANC decided to charge ahead with its anti-media Protection of Information Bill, brushing aside all amendments and compromises it had previously agreed to.
Even more than a week after the elections the ANC's anger was palpable, as Sam Mkokeli reported in Business Day (May 27):
"Last week's local government election results have left the (ANC) in a spin....its deep-seated anger at the media has emerged again....the ANC is seething....as the dominant party it wants to have a hand in every part of society. This is a ruling party that expects to be feared by a media that it increasingly tries to bully."
It must be realised that this anger is not the same as the disappointment that other parties might feel at an election reverse: the ANC is sui generis. In its own self-conception it is both a vanguard and a hegemonic party and it is still a liberation movement so that when it wins a ward or a town it talks of those areas as having been "liberated".
It is thus extremely painful and upsetting for it to witness the conquest of towns and cities by the DA for, by definition, this means the tide of liberation has been turned back. Rather as Mussolini decreed that his Fascists must not march but run because fascism was an intrinsically dynamic movement, so in the ANC's narrative the forces of liberation must always be going forward, must always be gaining - "the ANC leads". This whole narrative is upset if people like Sam Mkokeli describe it, in his dread phrase, as "a party in decline".
Similarly, the ANC leadership talk rather as if it was the duty of the media to see things the ANC's way. When faced with clear media bias, as in the SABC's decision to refuse to screen the DA's final rally but to give two hours interrupted coverage to its ANC equivalent, the ANC's assumption is that this is simply "normal": the rest of the media ought to behave the same way.
If the notion that the ANC is "a party in decline" is accepted then logically its leaders and members must accept the possibility that one day they will lose power not just locally but at the centre. This, of course, they are adamantly disinclined to do not only because they do not wish to surrender power and its fruits but because in their eyes such an outcome would mean the complete reversal of "liberation" and their "revolution".
Already in the case of DA-ruled Cape Town since 2006 there have been multiple attempts by the ANC to subvert DA control by almost any means it could lay its hand to. The real question thus becomes whether the ANC will seek to turn back the electoral tide by foul means. Even in 2011 it is quite possible that the ANC held on to Tshwane (Pretoria) only because of a gerrymander which added large peri-urban areas to the city.
The key to answering this question will lie in how the ANC behaves towards the African voters who voted DA this time. It is no accident that in both the Midvaal and Port Elizabeth examples cited above, the knee-jerk ANC reaction was to go after these defectors: in Midvaal the threat was to burn down their houses, in PE they were to be driven into the sea.
Note that no such threats were made against the minorities who had supported the DA; that might even be conceded as, in a sense, normal. While the DA's support remains confined to the minorities it can never be a serious threat. It is the possibility of further waves of African defectors moving to the DA which really threatens the ANC - and, of course, such voters are by far the most vulnerable to pressure, living as they do in (mainly ANC-controlled) townships and informal settlements. In those few cases where black areas actually gave a majority of their votes to the DA, such voters will be easily exposed and even elsewhere they will often be known.
So while the immediate talk within the post-election ANC was of the need to recapture lost ground amongst the minorities, potentially far more sinister will be ANC attempts to "mobilize" within African communities. Both the Opposition and the media will need to keep a very sharp eye on this front. For South Africa is not yet Zimbabwe. The Independent Electoral Commission has had seventeen years of conducting elections and is justifiably proud that they remain (largely) free and fair. Beyond that, the general public assumption among South Africans of all races is that electoral intimidation is wrong and unacceptable.
With the DA now nearing a quarter of the total vote, we have clearly reached a turning point. Until now the ANC has been able to have it both ways. On the one hand it has boasted of its proud non-racial tradition whenever it has suited it to do so. On the other hand it has based itself securely on the racial solidarity of the African voting bloc.
Now, however, it must choose. If it really sticks to non-racialism it may have to watch, agonised, as African racial solidarity decays, to the benefit of the DA. If, on the other hand, it decides to enforce African racial solidarity with a big stick, it will bid goodbye to its claims to non-racialism and to much else besides. The future of democracy in South Africa will depend on what happens next.
This article was published with the assistance of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit.
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