A 'breakthrough' election? (II)

RW Johnson says it is traditional leadership, not patronage, which is holding up ANC support in rural areas

The first article in this two part series can be read here.

The special case of KZN

The ANC vote went down almost everywhere.  Its best result by far was in KwaZulu-Natal where its vote was essentially steady – 57.82% this time compared to 57.48% (-0.34%) in 2011 while the DA rose by 2.9% to 15.16% from 12.26%. The EFF garnered only 3.46% here. But the IFP surged to 18.29% in the absence of the NFP. The result was that the IFP now holds 6 municipalities (Ulundi, Nongoma, Msinga, Nkandla, Big Five Hlabisa, and Mthonjaneni) while seven more (Nquthu, Endumeni, Jozini, Mtubatuba, eDumbe, Uphongolo and Abaqulusi) are hung.

Yet in eThekwini (Durban) the ANC sagged badly from 61.07% to 56.01% (-5.06%) while the DA increased from 21.02% in 2011 to 26.92% (+5.9%), which meant the DA took ten wards from the ANC and rose from 43 seat to 61. There had been bitter factional fighting within the ANC as its new city leader, Zandile Gumede, replaced all councillors loyal to the defeated leader, James Nxumalo, with her own followers.

It was doubtless important to her that they all kept their seats. In effect this was achieved by the enlargement of the council to 215 seats from 205 in 2011. This enabled the ANC to keep exactly the same number of seats (126) as before. Although the EFF took 8 council seats, the real phenomena were (i) the complete disappearance of the NFP (which had held 10 seats) due to their failure to file papers in time and (ii) the collapse of the Minority Front from 11 seats to one following the death of its leader, Amichand Rajbansi.

Virtually all the MF's voters appear to have bolted to the DA which also seems to have been the main beneficiary of the NFP's absence – the IFP took only one extra seat, going from nine to ten. It was these gains rather than the ANC's losses which essentially accounted for the DA's success in the city.

In Msunduzi (Pietermaritzburg) there was no reflection of national trends at all. The DA went up from its 2011 score by a mere 0.05% to 19.23% while the ANC rose by 0.74% to 66.09%.

Taken together with what we have observed in previous elections, there seems little doubt that the greater solidity of the ANC vote in KZN derives from essential tribal reasons.

Results in the premier league

Elsewhere, in the Free State the ANC vote plunged by 10.05%, down from 71.56% to 61.53% but the DA also fell – from 20.38% to 19.87% (-0.51%) while the EFF took 9.69%. The ANC held all the municipalities here save one – Metsimaholo (= Sasolburg) which saw a remarkable evolution with the ANC falling from 63% to 45.08% (-17.92%) while the DA also fell from 35.2% to 28.97% while the EFF romped in with 17.87%. Mangaung (Bloemfontein) saw a far smaller swing and the ANC easily retained control.

In Limpopo the ANC fell from 82.67% to 68.75% (-13.92%) but again too here the DA also fell from 8.06% to 6.64% (-1.42%), the ANC's poor performance being solely due to the EFF.

In Mpmumalanga the ANC fell from 79.19% to 70.74% (-8.45%). The DA also fell from 13.68% to 12.93% while the EFF took 9.39%. Thus the ANC won all municipalities, as before. Only in Bushbuckridge did the ANC lose wards – to the Bushbuckridge Residents Association. The BRA, a splinter from the ANC prior to the 2011 elections, won 18.09% in Bushbuckridge, thus doubling its council seats from 7 to 14. This was a striking performance – usually splinter movements begin to fade away at their second election but the BRA did the opposite.

In the North West the ANC fell from 75.4% to 59.36% (-16.04%) while the DA fell from 15.91% to 15.02%. The EFF took 15.54%. The most competitive election here was in Tlokwe where the ANC just held off a strong challenge from the DA and Independents, winning 34 of the 67 seats at stake with the DA winning 22 seats and the EFF 5 seats. Without doubt all that saved the ANC here was the amalgamation of its stronghold, Ventersdorp into the Tlokwe municipality not long before the election.

This had led to violent protests in both municipalities against the merger with the EFF accusing the ANC of “turning South Africa into an Animal Farm where all are equal but some are more equal than others”. Generally when such mergers take place the more prosperous area resents being lumped together with a less prosperous area, for obvious reasons.

But this was an unusual case where neither town wanted the merger. Nonetheless, it was forced through by Pravin Gordhan, then Minister for Co-operative Governance. Mr Gordhan is currently being hailed as the country's saviour but it is worth pointing out that this was a quite shameless and cynical gerrymander. The final result was, naturally enough, aided by the plentiful distribution of food parcels by the ANC.

How to read the results

It is best at this point to look back to Table 1. Although it can be said that the ANC lost everywhere, in both rural and urban areas, the real key is that it lost most where the EFF did best. In crude terms this was in the big cities of Gauteng and thus more urban votes were lost. But the swing against the ANC in the (rural) North West and Limpopo was just as big. On the other hand sub-average swings away from the ANC were seen in every other province except for Free State. Thus the ANC vote held up better in the countryside as a whole, so the claim that the ANC lost equally in urban and rural areas is not true.

Second, it has been claimed that the ANC vote held up best where the “Premier League” ruled and where the patronage networks were at their most powerful. This argument is not rational. Nowhere, after all, did the ANC control more patronage than in the huge Gauteng metropoles where it did so badly, and the highest swing of all away from the ANC took place precisely in one of the “Premier League” provinces, Supra Mahumapelo's North West.

But this claim is in any case intellectually confused. A moment's reflection reveals that the huge budgets of the metros provide far greater patronage than anything that is available in rural areas. Moreover, one needs to distinguish between national patronage (jobs and tenders in national government and parastatals, pensions and social grants) and local patronage (jobs and tenders from provincial and municipal government, RDP housing). Again, a moment's reflection shows that there is far more of both kinds of patronage in large metropolitan areas. Thus the whole notion of equating the Premier League provinces (North West, KwaZulu-Natal, Free State and Mpumalanga) with a denser concentration of patronage networks is false.

Third, it seems far more likely that the ANC's better performance in rural areas has more to do with the party's growing reliance on traditional chiefs and on the relatively stronger chieftaincy in Nguni areas (the Tswana chieftaincy in the North West is far weaker). In many rural areas it is common for the chiefs to marshal their followers towards an ANC vote by arguing that if the voters want to continue to benefit from the pensions, social grants and RDP housing which “the ANC gave them” they had better vote for the party.

Chiefs and headmen frequently insist that they will know how everyone voted and that any defectors are likely to fare poorly when the chief comes to distribute land. And it should not be forgotten that the chiefs enjoy judicial functions and that they and their headmen are quite capable of physical intimidation as well. 

The poor rural peasantry is not in a strong position to resist such pressures and quite often Opposition parties find it difficult even to gain access to rural electorates. The main thing which distinguishes the urban vote is the absence of such chiefly monitors and enforcers, not a lack of patronage.

Fourth, what is one to make of the DA's shrinkage in North West, Limpopo and Mpumlanga? The key is surely the fact that there is no metropole in any of them, nor even a city as big as Mangaung. It has to be realised that the advent of democracy saw strong pressures exerted on the country's white population to move to larger urban centres – where there would still be mainly white neighbourhoods with good schools and other facilities.

The result, as in Zimbabwe several decades before, was the effective abandonment of smaller towns by whites. This is still going on apace with, for example, the large “semigration” to Cape Town. It is quite likely, in other words, that the DA's white core electorate in these provinces is shrinking.

Finally, the ANC's performance continues to be heavily reliant on the tribal mobilization of the Zulu bloc behind Zuma. And the worse the ANC does in the rest of the country, the more its reliance on that bloc grows. As they lose control of one metro after another their eThekwini stronghold becomes more precious than ever. Yet that mobilization is far less than complete: if it were, the ANC would be getting 80% in KwaZulu-Natal, not 58%. And that bloc is no longer growing while more recent ANC statistics show a huge fall in ANC membership in the province, as also elsewhere.

Not everything in the garden is lovely

Does this then leave one with a looming future of an inexorable blue tide ? Not necessarily. Even if one looks a little harder at the Western Cape it is clear that the DA has significant problems. In Cape Town Patricia de Lille is something of an unguided missile and, in the opinion of many, she is far too friendly with property developers. She also stands accused of promoting her personal cronies to key jobs in preference to better qualified applicants. There is also far too much personality cult advertising: it hits you the minute you step off the plane in Cape Town. This never occurred under Helen Zille. In the past the DA has ensured a healthy turnover of mayors but De Lille has insisted on staying put.

Many DA voters were horrified to see De Lille urging that the party try to accommodate EFF demands for the expropriation of land, pointing to municipal land for a start. This has stirred uncomfortable memories of De Lille's PAC background and her visceral dislike of the “white” DA in 2006 which led her to oppose co-operation with the DA until forcibly hauled into line by her own followers. Plucking De Lille out of a small and dying party to become the DA's boss in its greatest stronghold was a strange initiative by Helen Zille, rather comparable to her attempt to enthrone Mamphela Ramphele as DA leader when Ramphele so disliked the DA that she refused even to join it. The Ramphele gambit did not end well. The jury is still out on De Lille.

The DA also has problems even in its blue chip towns along the Garden Route. Take Knysna. The DA won 10/19 seats here in 2011 with 50.5% of the vote. But its administration has drawn strong local criticism. It is accused of keeping very much the same administration that ran the town under the ANC with the result that things work now pretty much as they did then.

The result is a distinctly restless and dissatisfied DA electorate. It had nowhere much else to go in 2016 but it was notable here that COPE kept much of its 2011 vote  - despite trends elsewhere – and the DA vote actually fell slightly to 50.15%. The result is that the DA won only 9/19 seats and must now govern thanks only to a deal with an Independent.

Again, take Bitou (Plettenberg Bay). In 2011 the DA (48.02%) overtook the ANC (45.75%) and the DA (6 seats) did a coalition deal with the COPE councillor, giving it 7 of the13 seats. The key here was the ex-ANC leader, Memory Booysen, who had joined the DA, bringing precious African support with him. He became mayor. But things were rocky: there was a bad housing scandal and an electricity theft scandal and the single COPE councillor then switched to support the ANC and proposed a motion of no confidence in Booysen. At which point a by-election gave the DA 7 seats and a majority. But trouble has continued. There has been a major sexting scandal in which Booysen was accused of propositioning a young black woman who had applied for a municipal job. He denies it; she says he is lying; the ANC has published the incriminating SMS correspondence. It bears every comparison with the equally published sexting of Marius Fransman.

This was reflected in the results in 2016. Although the ANC continued to fall to 41.76%, the DA stayed still at 48.95%. The Active United Front (part of the UF) came in with 5.36% and took one seat. The ANC and DA got 6 seats each and the AUF has sided with the ANC, putting them in power – a disastrous result for the DA in what should have been a plum municipality.

Both these municipalities should be impregnable DA strongholds. In practice the DA is going backwards in both of them.

What the DA needs to do is to realise that no victory is ever unconditional, that each conquest has to be continuously re-earned and regained. The party needs to bear in mind the adage of the US Congressman up for re-election who approaches a voter and asks if he can be sure of his vote? The voter hesitates and says he doesn't really know. The Congressman explodes “But when you were called up for the draft I managed to get you out of it!”

The voter says, yes you did. “And when your Dad was unemployed I managed to find him a job in the Post Office”. The voter says, that was great, I'm really glad you did that. “And when your mother was left destitute I managed to make sure she got Medicare and Social Security”. The voter agrees that that was excellent. “So why the hell are you hesitating to support me?” Well, says the voter, what have you done for me lately?

RW Johnson