Surveying the wreckage

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the results of a local govt election in which there were few winners


A lover’s tiff? Or heading for an irretrievable breakdown and divorce? That’s the question confronting the African National Congress leadership, as masses of its supporters stood up the governing party on their November 1 municipal election date.

ANC hopes proved futile that somehow President Cyril Ramaphosa could, by dint of his high levels of personal popularity and cootchy-coo charm offensive, save the day. Threats by party supporters during the campaign that they would boycott came true, with the ANC vote dropping to 46% from 58% in the national elections two years ago.

This, when combined with a more general malaise of disillusionment and apathy among voters of all the major parties, delivered a turnout of 46%. That’s the lowest during the democratic era; the next comparative marker of alienation will be the averaged combined 1989 turnout of 33% in the apartheid government’s puppet assemblies for Indians and coloureds. If one figures in those eligible to vote who haven’t bothered to register, involvement levels are already a dire 26%.

The ANC’s steady decline in urban areas became obvious five years ago when it lost control of Nelson Mandela Bay, Tshwane, and Johannesburg, to add to Cape Town which by then was already in the Democratic Alliance’s bag since 2011. This time, only Buffalo City (East London) delivered a comfortable win.

In the other metros, it was a grim day. In Cape Town, the ANC managed a derisory 18% against the DA’s 60%. It barely edged over 50% in Mangaung (Bloemfontein), and will be scrambling desperately to turn its minorities into coalition administrations — 42% in eThekwini (Durban); 39% in Nelson Mandela Bay (Gqeberha/Port Elizabeth) against the DA’s 40%; 38% in Ekurhuleni against the DA’s 28%; 34% in Johannesburg against the DA’s 26%; and 35% in Tshwane against the DA’s 31%.

The ANC is being whittled down to being a rural/peri-urban party.

It continues to do well in the most blighted parts of the country — which, ironically, are the municipalities it has dominated since 1994 and where it allowed to go unchecked the greatest amount of thieving and incompetence has occurred — and in the large, under-serviced slums and townships on the margins of South Africa’s towns and cities. Its flattering performance in the worst governed areas is tied to the dependency of the poor on social grants and ANC warnings that other parties would cut the lifeline.

This rural/peri-urban phenomenon is also illustrated by the ANC’s performance in its historical birthplace and spiritual home, the Eastern Cape. It recorded 65% of the provincial tally, largely on the back of its massive strength in the most rural part, the north. 

Among urban areas, it was only in Buffalo City and the capital, Mthatha, that the ANC easily held its own. It lost the manufacturing-hub municipality of Kouga port with 38% to the DA’s 54%. And in six of the southern municipalities — closer to the DA-dominated Western Cape and centred around towns like Kouga, Gqeberha, Graaff-Reinet, and Makhanda (Grahamstown) — the ANC vote is barely 52% in three and under 47% in another three.

This is a new and precarious situation for the ANC. In the townships, it is being challenged by the Economic Freedom Fighters and grievance-focused new parties like ActionSA. In the cities, its traditional foe, the DA has held up well, despite their penchant for self-harm and dropping nationally from 27% to 22%.

Perhaps its bloodiest nose came in KwaZulu-Natal — the stomping ground of former president Jacob Zuma and the province that has the most signed-up ANC members — where it cracked under pressure from the Inkatha Freedom Party and the DA. Again, the ANC results show strong urban/rural pressures on the party.

In rural northern KZN, a resurgent Inkatha Freedom Party more than doubled the number of municipalities under its control from 8 to 17, including Nkandla, the site of Zuma’s fabled Pleasure Dome in the Veld. The ANC’s rural control is now confined entirely to the south. The closer one gets to its Eastern Cape heartland, the stronger it is.

But even in southern KZN, there are signs of potential future trouble for the ANC. In the ribbon of three municipalities that stretch along the South Coast, the only part of that region that has any semblance of non-agricultural economic activity, mainly tourism and small related businesses, the averaged ANC vote dropped from 67% to 49%.

In Durban, where the “failed insurgency” — as Ramaphosa described the public violence orchestrated by the Radical Economic Transformation faction of the ANC — wreaked its greatest destruction, the ANC paid a heavy price. ANC support dropped from 56% to 42%, with the DA still in second place but virtually static at 26%, and both the EFF and IFP benefiting, with 10% and 7% respectively.

In the provincial capital of Pietermaritzburg, the ANC retains control by a whisker, down to 48% from 66%. Again, the DA is static with 19%, while the IFP and EFF have edged up to 12% and 9% respectively. 

It is to uMngeni, centred around Howick, that DA leader John Steenhuisen will point as justification for his argument that race is irrelevant — white men can win. After an imaginative and focused campaign, the DA drew 47% of the vote against the ANC’s 39%.

Steenhuisen would, however, be unwise to find too much solace in this first ever KZN win. It would be hard to replicate elsewhere. The new mayor, Chris Pappas, is not only politically experienced — having been a councillor in Durban and a member of the KZN legislature — but is undeniably charismatic and a fluent Zulu speaker. 

The DA victory was also helped by the defection, just days before the election, of the ANC deputy mayor, Nompumelelo Buthelezi. The final straw after years of trying to keep an abominably dysfunctional municipality going, said Buthelezi, was death threats from rivals within the ANC. 

The threats against Buthelezi and her family have, unsurprisingly, escalated since her defection, given that the DA’s edge over an ANC/EFF coalition is a tight 13/12 split. That’s probably considerably better, one imagines, than a morbid bookmaker’s odds on her survival in a province where at least four would-be candidates were assassinated prior to voting day, with another three shot dead at an ANC candidates selection meeting. One can only marvel at her courage and pray for her survival.

During the run-up to this election, commentators made much of the emergence of an array of new parties that, it was argued, are the face of the future. The reality has been somewhat different. While they possibly will be key to important local coalitions — there is no majority winner in 70 of 213 councils — none of the newbies has shown the potential to break the national mould dominated by the ANC, DA and EFF.

Media-favourite GOOD failed dismally, drawing 0.6% of the vote nationally. So, too, Freedom Front Plus, which tripled its share of the vote to a measly 2.3% but holds negligible negotiating clout except possibly in Tshwane, where it has 8%. 

Another media favourite, Herman Mashaba’s ActionSA, was touted as the force that would smash the ANC in Johannesburg. Instead, it won not a single ward. With the DA at 25% and ASA at 16%, against the ANC’s 34%, the only route for ASA to a (fragile) governing coalition in the city of which he was once the DA mayor, is a deal that will involve his despised former DA colleagues.

Similarly in Tshwane, ASA has 9% of the vote against 11% for the EFF, 32% for the DA and 34% for the ANC. Mashaba has repeatedly said that he will never work with the ANC. Given that ASA also refrained from contesting DA-priority metros like Midvaal and Nelson Mandela Bay, could it be that the ASA has hopes of a rapprochement? There are many in the DA who would shudder at the thought, but ultimately power outweighs personal antipathies in politics. 

The results show that contrary to the narrative that a plethora of new, small, boutique political parties and independents strengthens our democracy, it arguably weakens it by dissipating voter involvement in futile quests that are driven by ego rather than the practicalities of winning seats. That’s particularly noticeable in tight contests.

In eThekwini, 46 small parties shared 45,000 votes — 5% — without returning a single candidate. In Johannesburg, 47 parties shared 37,000 votes — 4% — with no seats. In Tshwane, 46 parties shared 40,000 votes — 7% — without a single seat won. These fruitless votes bring to mind the words of French general Pierre Bosquet, watching the slaughter of the British Light Brigade cavalry in its suicidal charge against the Turkish artillery: “It’s magnificent, but it’s not war. It’s folly.” 

Mmusi Maimane’s One South Africa Movement is the South African equivalent of the Light Brigade, It financially and organisationally backed 300 independent candidates in 12 municipalities. They were slaughtered.

Contrary to its objective of holding the balance of power in poorly run municipalities, in order to force future accountability, OSA shaped only in the best-run province, the Western Cape. Only two OSA-backed movements won any seats, Cederberg Eerste and Knysna Independent Movement. The former holds the balance of power in Cederberg between the ANC and DA in a former DA-run municipality. The latter made absolutely no difference in a DA-held municipality.

At the time of publication, it is not yet clear what the results of the bartering and arm wrestling between the various potential coalition permutations will be. The hard political reality is that the deals, except in a few exceptions, most likely will be between the top three players — the ANC, the DA, and the EFF.

Given its traumatic experience of 2016 coalitions with the EFF and ActionSA, many in the DA will find attractive of a coalition with a single partner that shares many of its values, the ANC. One possibility is the DA being the leading partner in Tshwane and the ANC the leading partner in Johannesburg.

This would cause some rumblings in DA ranks but the biggest impediment is the stiff resistance that such a deal would elicit in ANC ranks. It could be the trigger for an ANC breakaway of the RET faction, although that likelihood is small. By far the biggest obstacle is Ramaphosa himself, who has at every turn backed down in every confrontation with the RET forces.

More palatable to many in the ANC would be a deal with the EFF, which says a prerequisite would be the ANC adopting EFF policies on land expropriation. Such an alliance would, at best, deliver vulnerable minority administrations in Tshwane and Johannesburg, and an administration with a slender majority in Ekurhuleni. And it would come at the reputational cost of bedding down with corrupt racists. But, hey, the DA has been there and done that.

Whatever the shape of these coalitions, they issue in an era of political instability. They tend to be unpopular with party supporters, who feel betrayed. All the time they’ve been told that the party leadership hates that cheap, eye-batting floozie, now it wants to make her part of a permanent ménage à trois.

Post-election coalitions are also inherently unstable, bringing together parties on the basis of pragmatism or expedience, depending on your viewpoint, rather than principle. They are vulnerable to corruption and bribery and, as our political history shows, soon end in tears and recriminations.

However, coalitions are also like that “shake-the-bag” moment in Scrabble. The new tiles may deliver a rack of consonants, but also, occasionally, a serendipitous and life saving seven-letter triple word score.

South Africa is close to a number of economic and social tipping points. This election, with the ANC dropping under 50% for the first time, has opened up possibilities to an end of 27-years of hegemonic stultification. The likely political chaos of the next few years may speed that process. 

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