The meaning of South Africa’s elections

August 16, 2016

The African National Congress suffered its worst showing in national or local elections since the fall of apartheid when people in South Africa went to the polls this month to vote for municipal government officeholders. The ANC won around 54 percent of the vote, and lost power in key metropolitan areas, including the Tshwane municipality that includes the capital city of Pretoria--another sign of the growing discontent with the ANC nationally under the leadership of South African President Jacob Zulu.

The chief beneficiaries of the ANC's decline was the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a party started in 2013 by former members expelled from the ANC's youth wing that sees itself as critical of both the ANC and DA for being too pro-business. But the EFF didn't win as large in increase in its vote as its leaders hoped for, and other left-wing initiatives didn't, in general, pick up votes.

Brian Ashley, director of the Alternative Information and Development Centre and a member of the editorial collective for Amandla magazine in South Africa, wrote this assessment of the outcome of the municipal elections and what they mean for struggles to come.

FOLLOWING THE 2016 local government elections, it is not just the ruling African National Congress (ANC) that is licking its wounds--the left has very little to celebrate outside of the consolidation of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) as the third-biggest party in the country. And even so, the EFF's increased share of the vote from the 2014 national elections, where it obtained just over 6 percent to its current performance of 8.2 percent, is a lot less than what was expected, not least by the EFF itself.

Parties supporting neoliberal or free-market policies secured a combined 85 percent of the vote, even if those voting for the ANC, Democratic Alliance (DA) and Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) are not aware of these parties' neoliberal orientation.

Parties with socialist programs such as the Bolshevik Party of South Africa, African People's Socialist Party, Socialist Party of Azania, etc. and the various affiliates of the NUMSA-supported United Front obtained less than 20,000 votes. Including the Azanian People's Organization, the Pan-African Congress and their various offshoots, the combined tally is not much beyond 80,000 votes.

President Jacob Zuma of the African National Congress
President Jacob Zuma of the African National Congress (GCIS)

REGARDLESS OF how poorly different fragments of the left performed, however, the big story of the elections is the relatively poor performance of the ANC Alliance.

Normally the elections should have taken place in April or May of this year. They were postponed until August. The poor showing of the ANC would probably have been even worse had the elections taken place in the midst of the corruption and constitutional controversies that raged around the Jacob Zuma presidency earlier in the year.

These local government elections should lead to some serious soul-searching by the ANC leadership in light of its worst electoral showing since 1994 and in light of a campaign costing more than 1 billion rand ($75 million). The ANC obtained only 54 percent of the vote compared with 63 percent in the 2011 local government elections and over 66 percent in 2006.

The ANC has lost ground in several of the big metropolitan areas--including Nelson Mandela Bay and Tshwane, where the neoliberal DA will likely take over the administrations. According to the former governor of the South African Reserve Bank, Tito Mboweni, the ANC lost about 85 percent of the municipal budget. Its support has fallen below 50 percent in several big metro areas, including Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni. This is not a small issue for a party that has long depended on its capacity to dispense patronage and largesse.

It is clear that the election results will have significant ramifications for the ANC and widen tensions within the organization. ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe had warned a party policy conference that should its support plunge below 60 percent this year, it would mark a "psychological and political turning point." That turning point has now arrived, and with the 2017 ANC Conference rushing forward, the blame game will drive wedges between the top leaders at all levels of the party.

It is not likely that the Zuma leadership would allow a wide-ranging assessment and introspection about the results, lest it strengthen the reverberating calls for him to go. However, such an introspection will be necessary if the ANC stands any chance of renewing itself and restoring its legitimacy and former hegemony.

In the coming weeks, we will have to interrogate the statistical details to uncover the devil. However, it is already necessary to caution those commentators who are writing the obituary of the ANC and the end of its dominance of electoral politics. This is premature.

This much is already clear from our cursory analysis: Even though the 2016 elections confirm the trend of declining ANC support, this time around, its poor showing is less a result of its supporters deserting it for an alternative, but rather just not coming out to vote.

Among ANC supporters there is deep disillusionment. This contrasts with the DA's better showing, which was as a result of their greater ability to bring out their supporters to vote and, to some extent, break into new areas. However, our initial analysis of the vote indicates that the DA's growth in so-called African townships is still quite modest.

THE DA and the EFF were the main beneficiaries of falling support for the ANC. The DA increased its vote by nearly 1 million votes, which translates into an increase of its share of the vote from 24 percent to 27 percent. In 2011, the DA received 3.18 million votes, and in these elections, it obtained 4 million votes. For the DA, this represents an almost 25 percent improvement in the number of people that voted for it and contradicts the idea of an electoral ceiling beyond which it cannot grow. It is also clear that the DA won ground in several Black townships.

The EFF received just over 1,2 million votes, which gave it over 8 percent of the vote and consolidated it as the third-largest party in the country. The outcome of the election has placed the EFF in an even stronger position than its electoral showing, as it is positioned as potential kingmaker in several hung municipalities, not least the Nelson Mandela Bay, Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni and Tshwane metro areas.

The EFF only increased its vote since the 2014 national election by just over 100,000 votes, which is not as significant as one would have imagined given the time the EFF has had in building structures and its profile since the 2014 elections.

Nevertheless, we should not underestimate the significance for the left of the electoral showing of the EFF. The 1.2 million votes for the EFF must be seen as a vote for a radical political alternative to the ANC and DA and provides a foundation for growing a left electoral base.

How this unfolds will depend on how the EFF approaches the issue of coalitions. Should it enter into alliances with the DA against the ANC, it is likely to lose support among radical layers. In some ways, the EFF has boxed itself into a corner with respect to publicly rejecting alliances with the ANC. For example, forming a coalition with the ANC in Gauteng may help drive a wider wedge between the Gauteng ANC and Zuma, and bring closer the EFF's major campaign to chase Zuma from power.

Outside of a few specific cases, local associations and independents did poorly, as the electorate responded more to national issues than to specific local concerns.

The left outside of the Alliance and outside of the EFF went into the elections disorganized and with no unified perspective. The United Front had decided not to stand in the elections. Nevertheless, several affiliates registered either in the name of the United Front or under their own banner. In general, these organizations did very poorly and were not able to gain traction with the voters

Nevertheless, there are some important exceptions. The Sterkspruit Civic Association obtained 23 percent of the vote and was second to the ANC in the Senqu municipality, and has 8 seats out of a total of 34 seats. In Plettenberg Bay, the Active United Front is the kingmaker in the Bitou Municipality, even though it has just one seat--because the DA and ANC each obtained 6 seats. The United Front of the Eastern Cape obtained 7,248 ward votes and gained 1 seat in the Nelson Mandela Bay metro area.

CLEARLY, THE ANC as the ruling party is going to have to do a lot of soul-searching if it is going to reverse its steady slide in support. Its 2017 conference is going to have to be a conference of renewal.

But similarly, the left in this country is in the ICU and in desperate need of new ideas that go beyond the trotting out of outmoded dogma. The rise of the EFF should offer some inspiration, but simply clutching at the coattails of the EFF will not cut it.

Firstly, it isn't certain that the EFF will be able to keep things together now that it has to manage the complexity of local government and 761 councilors, many of whom are young and politically inexperienced. Secondly, there is a strong danger that the EFF will slip into a parliamentarism, forgetting that the lifeblood of a left party lies in the struggles and campaigns of the "wretched of the earth."

A new left, anti-authoritarian, democratic and emancipatory, would be good for the EFF in countering its commandism and tendency to statism. Hopefully, the local government elections will be a wake-up call for those who locate themselves in the paradigm that another South Africa is not just possible but urgent. Forward to renewal.

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