08 August, 2016

Local Elections…National Repercussions: A Brief Look at the 2016 South African Local Government Elections

by Willem Ellis

Like all other cities in South Africa (SA), my city Bloemfontein has been festooned with local government election banners and posters for the last few weeks. The faces of the leaders of political parties beaming down at us from lampposts with slogans promising us to trust them with transforming society; giving power to members of all communities; fighting for our rights; bringing economic freedom in our lifetime and one party that merely said…trust us!

The local government election circus of 2016 has come and (almost) gone and now the time for analysis has arrived. Commentators, academics, experts and fellow citizens will analyse the results to death – leaving no bone unpicked or statistic untouched. I know my students will ambush me for an opinion in our next class…so here is my penny’s worth of opinion. For me the election results are mostly about three parties and two issues.

Photo: HelenOnline

For the African National Congress (ANC) the election results must have been like a bucket of cold water in the face! For the 1st time since 1994 the party’s general support has waned below 60% of the national electorate (±54%). Its apparent loss (depending on ongoing coalition talks between all parties that has won seats) of the previously held Metropolitan Councils (metros) of Nelson Mandela Bay (centered around the city of Port Elizabeth in the ANC heartland of the Eastern Cape province); Tshwane (centered around the city of Pretoria, the administrative capital of SA) and Johannesburg (the economic hub of SA) is a staggering result for the ANC and an apparent loss of faith in the ruling party by the urban electorate. Yes, it might seems that the swing away from the ANC could have been influenced by voters staying away rather than voting for other parties in a form of protest (also against the scandals surrounding President Jacob Zuma), inclement weather or a ineffective election campaign marred by violence…but the votes have been counted and it seems the fat lady has sung!

The Democratic Alliance (DA) could be seen as major winners looking at its big gains in areas that had previously been dominated by the ANC. Not only has it retained its dominance of local councils in the Western Cape (including the metro of Cape Town) and Midvaal in Gauteng, but it has really put the cat amongst the pigeons with its support in (and possible future governance of) the metros mentioned above. Even though the ANC still dominates the local government scene, the DA has grown its support in most councils across the country. Its message centered on its clean record of governance in the Western Cape seems to have found fertile ground across the country. The challenge will now be about proving their political and governance mettle in new untested and possibly hostile local municipal and metropolitan areas. The jury on whether the DA has been able to really grow its support among the black electorate exponentially is still out, but it seems that especially among the urban black electorate its message is finding sympathetic ears.

And then the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF)! The new kid on the block as far as local government elections are concerned have not been able to capture a single municipality but its strong showing in all of the hotly contested metro’s mentioned above has given it the really enviable role of kingmakers when it comes to the formation of coalition governments. As this is being written, frantic coalition talks are ongoing all over SA and the EFF holds the key to most of them! Before and during the elections, the EFF has gone on record saying that they will not enter into coalitions with the ANC – but we all know the 14 days municipalities are given to form their councils after the declaration of final results can prove to be a very long time in politics!

The two issues that really interest me are the forming of the local coalition governments and the reaction of the ANC to the results of the elections. South Africa does not really have experience of coalition politics and it seems that parties with vastly differing ideological backgrounds and agendas (the DA and EFF comes to mind) are considering forming coalitions…an experiment that could be doomed for failure! Even though it is being said that local government is about service rendering and not ideology, getting rid of socialist, capitalist, nationalist or whatever baggage is never that easy! Local government in SA is in a precarious state and our citizens deserve clean, effective and accountable government and service rendering – not bickering politicians!

That leaves us with the ANC reaction to it all…will there be introspection and realignment as promised or will we see instability within the party with President Zuma using the opportunity to purge political opponents - especially in the Gauteng metros, a province where voices have been going up against him recently? Were the elections also a bit of a referendum on the state of national governance? Will the ANC allow itself to be governed by others or will we see instability being fomented in “new” opposition-controlled municipalities and metros?

The 2019 national elections are closer than we think and with everything to play for, the gloves will come off soon…very soon.

So now the banners and posters come down and our lives return to normal…if ever there will be a normal in South African politics again!

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