Where to from here?

RW Johnson says LGE 2021 has effectively rendered much of SA ungovernable again

When the present electoral system was first introduced anyone with any knowledge of such matters could see that it was a recipe for the almost indefinite fragmentation of the vote: pure PR with no lower limit on representation[1]. What this meant was that 0.25% if the vote earned you one seat. Except, since some votes were bound to be wasted on no-hoper lists, the real quotient might be as low as 0.2% or even less.

True, there were several forces tending to limit fragmentation. The party bosses were given complete power over the composition of their lists, there were no countervailing constituency influences at all and party bosses could even swap their list members around after election. Secondly, South Africa had a long-established political culture of two dominant parties and such cultures tend to change only slowly. And finally, South Africans had just experienced an almost fifty-year period of one-party dominant rule, so they were habituated to a situation in which there was a single overwhelming source of power and patronage in society. Everyone’s reflexes were attuned to the continuation of such a situation.

These forces were sufficient to guarantee the ANC a long period of one-party dominance within an effectively two-party system - at first ANC and NP, then ANC and DA. But at the end of the day it remained true that the electoral system was built for fragmentation and the only change made to it so far – making it easier for Independents to stand – tended in the same direction. The irony, of course, was that those who designed the system – essentially the ANC and the Nats – probably had little notion that over the long term they were encouraging fragmentation, for one thing they shared was a complete lack of experience of democratic multi-party politics.

This process of fragmentation has already moved through several phases. The long period of Mbeki’s dominance – effectively 1994-2007 – saw the ANC run essentially by former exiles habituated to a highly disciplined and centralised party machine. This had been mightily reinforced by the fact that the party’s leadership elite was, in exile, the sole source of patronage. But once the ANC returned home and put down roots all manner of patronage sources sprang into life. A millions strong trade union movement was one such source – there had been nothing like that in exile. But as ANC elites dug themselves in at city and provincial level and within the many powerful institutions of government and economic life a vast rich panoply of patrons and clients replaced the old centralised model.

The leadership group around Mbeki was slow to realise how things had changed. In exile it had been axiomatically true that anyone within the ANC who picked a fight with the party leadership was doomed: they would be immediately cut off from all patronage and crushed. When Zuma was turfed out of the Deputy Presidency in 2005 it was too easily assumed that that would be the end of him. But Zuma had understood the new political world better than his opponents and put together a coalition consisting of the SACP, Cosatu, the ANC Youth League and the biggest ethnic group, Zulus.

From that moment on the ANC was split into two irreconcilable factions and by 2007 the Zuma coalition had won quite easily. Mbeki was left angrily expostulating that he hardly recognized the new sort of people who now ran the ANC: it was no longer the ANC that he knew. What this really meant was that he hadn’t really grasped what had been going on since 1994. As a result, the ANC’s great intellectual, Mbeki, had been outwitted by a barely literate Zulu peasant. Moreover, Zuma realised that he was now operating in an era of shifting coalitions. Over time the SACP, Cosatu and the Youth League all abandoned the Zuma camp but, as we know, Zuma’s RET faction goes on and remains powerful.

The next stage in the process of fragmentation came with the founding of the EFF in 2013 – though it followed a period of several years in which Julius Malema had effectively built the ANCYL into an alternative, left populist party. This meant that the ANC had not only broken into two factions but had now spawned a major rival as well, a crucial stage in the party’s disaggregation.

A further stage was triggered by the DA’s persistent experiments with identity politics which saw it attempt to achieve a breakthrough into the black vote by a series of ill-judged recruitments of black personalities who were then instantly promoted to leadership positions. In every case the result was disaster, frequently with the result of these much-umbraged black politicians then attempting to lead away splinters of the DA electorate. Thus we have seen Mamphela’s party, Patricia’s party and now Mashaba’s party. There is also Maimane’s sort-of-party – his weird attempt to federate the Independents with himself as their would-be leader, an idea so naive and silly that one can only boggle at the thought that the DA once chose him as its leader.

The damage from the DA’s identity politics games is still ongoing. Maimane’s alienation of the Afrikaans vote continues to produce gains for the FF+ but by handing the mayoralty of Jo’burg to Herman Mashaba, a man with no DA history, the DA has helped create a major competitor who has done the DA enormous damage throughout its Gauteng redoubt. Even for a party given to scoring own goals this was a quite exceptional blunder.

But not unique. By giving the mayoralty of Cape Town to Patricia de Lille, whose visceral dislike of the DA was already clear, the party created fairly certain trouble for itself down the line – and that trouble is ongoing too. Earlier the DA’s presidential nomination had been offered to someone (Mamphela) who refused even to join the DA. Imagine, though, what might have happened had not the wilful Mamphela turned the party down. The DA would then have found itself with a headstrong leader who owed the party no loyalty at all, a snafu so bad that the party might not have survived. In a word, deathwish politics.

Finally we have the increased encouragement to Independents. This has merely confirmed a long-standing trend towards increasing candidacies:


Party ward candidates

PR candidates

Total candidates*


























* includes Independent candidates

Now that the voting’s over we can see that the result has been to make much of South Africa ungovernable. South African party leaders are all centralizers and take it upon themselves to negotiate coalitions, though local democracy would really require that this be done by purely local bargaining. Already the DA leaders have ruled out coalitions with the EFF and Mashaba has ruled out coalitions with the ANC (“the party of thieves” as he not unreasonably calls them). This would seem likely to produce ANC-EFF coalitions, the most corrupt and incompetent mixture imaginable.

Alternatively, imagine that ANC-DA coalitions are negotiated in the three Gauteng metros and eThekwini (Durban). In all these cases the ANC is used to having complete control and would generally provide the mayor. In addition the whole administration of all these cities consists of deployed ANC cadres. How on earth would the DA, with only 25%-35% of the council seats, prevent the ANC from getting up to its usual tricks, rigging the tenders and stealing the money ? Steenhuisen and Zille could sign any coalition agreements they liked but the idea that these would prevent the ANC from acting like the ANC is laughable. But if the DA won’t join these coalitions none of these cities will have a ruling majority. They will be ungovernable anyway.

The DA has veered about on this issue. Originally John Steenhuisen declared his willingness to make deals with anyone but the EFF. Then he added a number of further conditions. Then he ruled out coalitions with the ANC. This follows his erratic behaviour in the campaign, first strongly supporting the notorious Phoenix posters, then having to take them down and walk his remarks back. Then telling Cape Town councillors that they would have to build on their golf courses, being hurriedly disavowed by the party and having to walk that back. Little wonder that when you talk to DA activists you hear goodwill for Steenhuisen but the complaint that “he’s not a leader”. Very much the same, indeed, that one hears about Ramaphosa.

It’s difficult not to sympathize for Steenhuisen is facing constraints that no previous DA leader has ever had to face, with a previous party leader hogging what should have been his publicity. And Helen Zille isn’t just any ex-leader. She is, apparently, right about everything. She seems not to have seen a voting booth that she couldn’t have organised better herself. And she gets into physical tussles with the police. Helen Suzman often went into far more dangerous situations and had to deal with the apartheid police who were hardly gentlemen and were often bitterly anti-semitic to boot. But she always kept her calm and dignity. There were no tussles with the police.

In addition, Steenhuisen knows that his predecessor was booted out after a poor election result and so he has rather pathetically tried to pretend that the DA’s further losses this time were part of a pretty good overall result. After all, the party’s ongoing losses are the result of blunders by his predecessors, not by him. But his awkward situation seems to have led him into a series of poorly judged self-assertions and, when challenged, too often he blusters..

As we all know, South Africa went into this election with many of its municipalities on their last legs and with the ANC desperately trying to postpone the elections. If one tries to imagine the 2021 elections in historical context it is surely more likely that they will be remembered for quite different reasons.

First, this may be the last time we see a full set of local elections. Before he quit as Finance Minister, Tito Mboweni was already having to deal with bankrupt municipalities appealing to him to meet their debts and even just to give them money with which to pay salaries. He firmly said no. Early signs are that Godongwana will have to be at least as tough: thus far, for example, he has pencilled in a complete pay freeze for the public service. No responsible minister will want to bail out municipalities which are a byword for theft and irregular spending. So one should surely expect quite a few municipalities to go bust before 2026.

Secondly, the elections surely signal a key stage in the decay of the ANC. Of the eight metros they now have majorities in only the two smallest, Mangaung (Bloemfontein) and Buffalo City (East London). In big city South Africa the ANC is now hopelessly broken and its huge loss of patronage in this election will only accelerate that process.

Third, Ramaphosa’s pathetic electioneering merely illustrated how hopeless the situation was. Everywhere he had to apologise for ANC municipal governance, to admit that “mistakes” had been made and to plead that “next time it would be different”, though given that he also defended cadre deployment he could offer no earthly reason why that should be so. He was booed both in Soweto and Ekurhuleni and the results suggest that he was nowhere believed. Indeed, everything suggests that as times become harder the ANC’s local elites will become ever more ruthless and hard-faced in their looting. For a start, the pie that they have to carve up is now shrinking quite fast, a fact which will add an increasingly desperate note to the looting.

This situation is likely to be made worse by the sight of the DA-majority towns – Midvaal, Kouga, Umngeni, Cape Town, Stellenbosch etc – all sailing happily on, doing their jobs properly and attracting more jobs and residents. The contrast with ANC-ruled towns is increasingly painful. This is going to get worse as DA towns acquire independent power, something which most ANC towns can’t afford.

Fourth, the bad ANC losses in 2016 were a fundamental cause of the downfall of Zuma. The loss of jobs and patronage was unforgivable. But the ANC losses in 2021 have been even worse. In 2019 when I was running Markdata polls on the election we found that 11% of voters said that they had lost confidence in the ANC but would still vote for it because they had confidence in Ramaphosa. In other words, Ramaphosa’s personal appeal was probably the main factor preventing the ANC from dropping under 50% then. In 2021 this magic clearly failed to work. During the campaign there was lots of nervous speculation about the ANC perhaps going under 50% but in many places it actually went under 40%.

The big question is: can the ANC stop the haemorrhaging? Probably not. After all, the looting and corruption won’t stop and there is little reason to expect service delivery to improve. In addition the ANC has lost a lot of prestige and authority, making it progressively easier for the next wave(s) to defect.

So, where to from here? John Steenhuisen has started the old DA game of promising voters that after the 2024 election the DA will become the core of a new centrist coalition. This is a very silly game – one remembers a few elections ago Helen Zille confidently predicting how the DA would soon cross the 30% line. This sort of nonsense happens because DA leaders are desperate to offer their supporters a glimpse of future relief, a happy world in which the ANC incubus is lifted from their shoulders. More surprisingly, the Institute of Race Relations – which really does know better – has joined in this game.

The first point is that election dates loom big in politicians’ diaries but history often marches to a different beat. Ramaphosa will clearly come under great pressure following his witless performance and the ANC’s dire results. He is an emollient man, not a fighter, so he will probably stagger round the ring, taking punches and making more foolish promises that he cannot keep.

But it’s difficult to imagine him being replaced at the December 2022 ANC conference. The 2017 conference was a close-run auction between an incumbent president and a challenger. Ramaphosa won essentially because he had raised enough campaign funds from business to outbid Zuma, whose money came from the Guptas and other shady paymasters.

Ramaphosa won’t face anything that formidable in 2022. At present there is no challenger. If he thought he had a ghost of a chance Paul Mashatile would doubtless make himself available but that’s not happening. And who can the RET crowd put up? Ace Magashule? Carl Niehaus?

So, a badly shop-soiled and probably rather rattled Ramaphosa will get re-elected. But then the fun will really start, with Ramaphosa now a lame duck and all eyes will be fixed on the succession. (A key indicator will be who gets the deputy-presidency at the 2022 conference.) The ANC will make a herculean effort to hold on in 2024, arguing that the choice is either an ANC government or ungovernability. In theory Ramaphosa will be president until 2029 but it now seems established that the presidential term cannot outlast the election of a new ANC leader (in 2027).

Meanwhile, the ANC’s decomposition will proceed apace and the country will be in an ever greater mess. Somehow, amidst that, an ANC government has to exert strong and enduring financial discipline – an almost impossible ask. In such a situation the ANC may find that it simply can’t come up with a credible successor to Ramaphosa. After all, in the whole period since 1994 it has yet to come up with a strong and capable executive president. Mbeki was responsible for the deaths of over 360,000 Aids sufferers, inflicted immense damage on the whole southern African region by keeping Mugabe in power and was responsible for the continuing electricity crisis. Yet he was probably the best President we’ve had since 1994. The standard has been abysmal.

Nothing is certain, of course, but the track record to date doesn’t really suggest that a competitive Opposition party will take centre stage. If we proceed as before the ANC will fail to govern and will implode under its own contradictions without any other party having to play too energetic a role. And, of course, the implosion of the ANC and state failure are likely to proceed in tandem. In which case the rather different question is who will pick up the pieces. The candidates for that probably do not include parliamentary politicians at all.

R.W. Johnson

[1] For example, Germany’s PR system applies only to those parties gaining a minimum of 5% of the vote.