03 June, 2015

South Africa’s 2016 Local Government Elections

by Hussein Solomon

Despite being a year away, it is clear that campaigning for South Africa’s local government elections has begun in earnest. The results of the national elections has forced the ruling African National Congress (ANC) to confront the unpleasant reality that it is increasingly becoming a rural party – being largely shunned by middle class voters of all races. There is a very real danger, then, that large metropolitan areas such as Johannesburg in Gauteng Province and Nelson Mandela Bay in the Eastern Cape might well go the route of Cape Town and vote for the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA). It is no coincidence that the DA chose to have their electoral conference in the Nelson Mandela Bay area nor is it coincidental that the first black leader of the DA – Mmusi Maimane – comes from Gauteng.

Mmusi Mainane (Photo: Democratic Alliance)

It is clear as to why middle class voters are abandoning the ANC in droves. Crime and unemployment is on the rise – so is personal income tax and there is every likelihood that interest rates will continue their rise as well given the increased fuel prices and the increased electricity tariffs which would also mean an increase in inflation. Moreover, whilst the government has a plan to kick start economic growth – the National Development Plan – it has not implemented it for fear of upsetting the Congress of South African Trade Union (COSATU) with whom it shares a close relationship. This adoption of grandiose polices without implementation meanwhile has seen investors – both local and foreign – not investing in the country. Not surprisingly, South Africa’s investment status has been downgraded by international ratings agencies. Also adding to the ire of middle class voters is the growing incompetence of the state as seen in problems around service delivery whilst the size of the public service has effectively tripled since 1994. The bloated public service together with endemic corruption which has permeated all levels of government has turned ire to growing disenchantment with the ruling party. Given the small tax base in the country, the middle class is acutely aware that corruption is their hard-earned tax money being appropriated for personal aggrandizement.

At the same time, there is another – inter-generational - dimension coming into play in next year’s local government elections. Whilst the ANC can still appeal to an older generation on the basis of it having delivered the country from apartheid, this has scant appeal to a younger generation where apartheid is a historical fact and not a lived experience. Increasingly, it is the youth who have borne the brunt of the ANC’s mis-steps in economic policy. This is evident in the fact that more than half of the youth in the country are unemployed. Moreover, the ruling party lacks rapport with the youth given the fact that its own ANC Youth League remains in disarray. The popular disgruntlement of South Africa’s youth with the ruling party is seen in the recent election at the University of Fort Hare – the intellectual home of the ANC – which witnessed black youth there voting for the DA.

The ANC is clearly aware of the enormity of the challenge posed – both popular alienation and the inroads the opposition has been making within their own constituency. At the same time, they seem powerless to change course. Whilst the ANC is aware that corruption is increasingly costing it votes and whilst the party has set up an ethics committee, it has largely disregarded the findings of its own ethics committee. Taking action, for instance, against the popular Northern Cape ANC strongman John Block would cost it votes amongst his supporters. Not taking action against him is also costing it votes, however, amongst ordinary South Africans. More importantly, it must be difficult to take action against local councilors or regional players when President Zuma himself is so flawed.

Similarly, whilst elements within the ANC understand the need for a greater role for the private sector in, say, electricity provision, given the repeated failures of state utilities like ESKOM to keep the lights on, it realizes that its South African Communist Party (SACP) and COSATU allies will baulk at the privatization of state utilities irrespective how incompetent they are or the fact that the country is shedding jobs and economic growth as a result of load-shedding.

Without therefore being able to change direction, the ANC’s strategy seems to be one of parachuting popular party members who would elicit loyalty from a particular constituency. A case in point is Nelson Mandela Bay where Danny Jordaan has been made the ANC’s mayoral candidate. Such a strategy is decidedly short-term however – changing personalities whilst the festering conditions for resentment remain. In the process, the popular appeal of such leaders will erode as citizens increasingly realize that their circumstances remain as desperate as ever.

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