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Sharp-tongued South African voters give ruling ANC a stiff rebuke

Richard Calland | Updated on: 11 February 2017, 7:47 IST

South Africa has entered a new era of competitive politics and coalition government. The August 3 municipal election represented a sea change in the country's democratic journey. The party of liberation - the African National Congress (ANC) - has suffered a significant erosion of its core working-class support, at least in urban areas.

The major opposition parties, the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), made major inroads into the ANC's traditional strongholds. This happened particularly in the Eastern Cape and in the governmental and industrial heartlands of Tshwane and Johannesburg respectively.

Now the ANC faces some tough questions about its direction of travel and about its leader, President Jacob Zuma.

In the ten national and municipal elections since South Africa's founding democratic moment in 1994, the ANC has never fallen below 62.15% of the popular vote. With just over 90% of the votes tallied on the morning of August 5, the ANC was sitting at a remarkable 54.24%. It's a substantial drop from the 62.15% it attained in the last national election in 2014.

To fall beneath 60% is psychologically significant. For more than 20 years, ANC electoral support appeared unyielding to the obvious weaknesses of its performance in government. Unemployment and inequality have been increasing, and the economy slowing almost to a halt in recent years.

Add to this the infelicities of its leadership, especially Zuma's. A powerful patronage network has attached itself to Zuma, most obviously evidenced by the corrupting influence of the Gupta family and other such cronies.

Cynicism about democracy in the middle and professional classes has grown. The Afrobarometer opinion series has noted a sharp fall in trust in both Zuma and in institutions of representative democracy, such as parliament.

Business leaders have despaired about the apparently impenetrable hegemony of the ANC. Foreign investors and analysts lamented the lack of responsiveness of the political system. They have fretted that South Africa was headed towards a one-party dominant state, regardless of its constitutional commitment to multi-party democracy.

ANC losing hegemogy

But now the people have spoken. And they have done so with a sharp tongue, offering a stiff rebuke to the ANC in working-class "black township" areas such as Mamelodi in the capital, Tshwane, and Motherwell in Port Elizabeth.

In ward 21 in Mabopane, in the north-western part of Tshwane, for example, ANC support has fallen from 82% at the last municipal elections in 2011 to 59%. The DA's vote has doubled to just short of 20% and the EFF has harvested a creditable 19% itself.

This trend repeats itself, more or less, in other working class "black" areas of Tshwane. This seems to have coincided closely with those areas where intra-party conflict and violence erupted when the ANC made such a hash of choosing its mayoral candidate for the city in June.

In Nelson Mandela Bay in the Eastern Cape, the ANC also suffered a notable erosion of its "core", urban black working-class vote. In Ward 56, for example, in Motherwell, ANC support has fallen by almost 20%, from 89% in 2011 to 70% now, with the EFF taking 11% from the ruling party. The new regional party, the United Front of the Eastern Cape established by former trade union federation COSATU General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi and breakaway metalworkers' union NUMSA, got 5%. The DA gained modestly, from 1.6% to 4%.

The position in the City of Johannesburg is more complex, with apparently greater contrasts between wards. The results, like the city, are more eclectic: in some wards, for example, the EFF has done especially well (with more than 30% of the vote) and in other (hostel) areas the traditionalist Inkatha Freedom Party, or IFP, has done surprisingly well.

But, at this point (7am on Friday August 5, with 70% of the Johannesburg vote counted), it seems likely that the ANC will not only be forced below 50% in Nelson Mandela Bay and Tshwane but also in Johannesburg - a game-changing outcome.

Scaremongering and the black vote

While the EFF may have "got in the way" of greater progress for the DA in working-class areas, the opposition as a whole has clearly broken the mould of race-aligned voting in South Africa. This is despite the desperate attempts by the ANC leadership, especially Zuma, to remind its core vote of the ANC's liberation credentials and history.

Employing the politics of fear, Zuma used emotive language during the final days of the campaign, claiming that the DA "was the child of a snake, the National Party [that governed under apartheid]".

But, voters seem to have rejected these heavily negative, scare tactics. It suggests that South Africa, finally, is breaking free of the apartheid-era paradigm, in which the ANC enjoyed a monopoly on political legitimacy.

After seeing the ANC's 22-year electoral hegemony penetrated, South Africa, it turns out after all, has a competitive multi-party democracy. Its political practice matches the principles of its constitution. Its institutions of democratic governance, including the courts and the rule of law, are largely robust and independent. The Independent Electoral Commission, for example, oversaw a largely well-run election, despite coming under greater pressure than ever before.

Moreover, its people should be proud and hopeful, though many questions remain to be answered, including whether the coalitions that must necessarily form will be stable enough to provide better City Hall government.

Looking to the future

How the ANC responds to defeat, and to the reality that its grip on political power is slipping, is the most important of all, given the history of post-colonial rule in Africa and the tendency of liberation movements and parties to cling to power.

So far, the ANC has responded graciously to defeat, noting that in its long history it has faced greater setbacks prior to 1994. Its Secretary-General, Gwede Mantashe, however appeared to blame the voters when he was quoted as saying that

'black people don't appreciate the importance of the vote.'

In the short to medium term the ANC must decide whether to do more than simply acknowledge that Zuma is an electoral liability, as many of its senior members now do. Zuma enjoys a majority of support on the all-powerful national executive committee of the ruling party.

There will be serious repercussions and probably a very divisive blame game, in which Zuma attempts to deflect responsibility from himself. That the ANC did badly not just in Gauteng, but also in the Eastern Cape and Western Cape (its share of the vote in the City of Cape Town, for example, falling to a dismal 25%), will make it harder for him to do so.

The pattern is that municipal elections are coupled with the national election to follow three years later, in terms of trends. For example, in the 2014 national election the DA attracted almost precisely the same share of the vote (23.5%) as it did in the 2011 municipal elections.

So, this week's result provides a good indication of what lies ahead in 2019. And the ANC leadership and its national executive committee will be looking at this and fretting - about their own individual political futures as well as their party's. This could shift the balance of power in the national executive committee away from Zuma in the coming months as the party heads towards its December 2017 national elective conference.

Across the country there is hope and uncertainty in equal measure. Will the new era of competitive multi-party democracy and coalition politics deliver better government and better prospects for the people of South Africa, especially its poorest citizens? A new dawn has broken, but the question of whether it offers a brighter future for Africa's third largest economy is still to be answered.

Richard Calland, Associate Professor in Public Law, University of Cape Town

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

First published: 10 August 2016, 1:25 IST