South Africa: The local government elections - a shift in the political landscape

The recent local government election results represent a decisive shift in the South African political landscape. It comes in the wake of years of ferocious class struggle in which all the contradictions of South African society have come to the surface in an explosive way. The result of these elections provides us with a snapshot into this process in which the collective mood of anger, frustration and disillusionment among the masses are the dominant features.

The outcome of the elections has significantly altered the situation. The decline in support for the African National Congress (ANC) has left behind a fractured political terrain. This is reflected in the large number of councils in which no party could receive an outright majority. Significantly, these are situated in the most important economic and political centres. The result of this was the formation of fragile minority councils across the country.

Nationally the ANC received 53.9% of the vote which is a decline from the 61.9% it received in the 2011 elections. The biggest bourgeois party, the Democratic Alliance (DA) came in second with 26.9% and the Economic Freedom Fighters came in third with 8.1% of the vote.  

However this new fractured political terrain is only partially reflected through the elected parties. If we look at the turnout  it clearly shows that the majority of the youth do not participate in elections. The turnout for the “born free” age group of 20-29 year-olds was 48 per cent. Even in the 30-39 category the turnout was only 49 per percent. The total average turnout was at about 58%. In contrast to this, the age group 40-49  the turnout was 61 percent and in all the age groups above this the turnout was above 70 per cent.

This phenomenon cannot be ascribed to “apathy” among the youth as some have suggested. On the contrary, as is shown by the student protest movement, the youth are some of the most politically active layers of society. It is clear evidence that large parts of the class struggle are being waged outside of the formal electoral paths. In order to have a holistic view of the processes playing out in South African society it is necessary to have a look at what is happening both inside and outside of the formal electoral structures.

Interesting recent research published on behalf of the Institute for Security Studies found that a majority of the youth perceive protesting and demonstrating as a more effective way of effecting change than through elections.

This is a feature which is not confined to the youth, but a general process which is reflected in the voting age population. Out of about 35 million eligible voters, about 15 million people participated in the elections. This means that more than 20 million people, or 58% of eligible voters did not vote in the elections.  

A shift in the political situation

The dominant feature of these elections is the heavy losses incurred by the ANC. A large layer of people saw these elections as equivalent to a referendum on the party.

After 22 years of uninterrupted rule on a capitalist basis, these elections will be known as the first in which the party has began to lose power to a significant degree. It lost support in 8 out of the 9 provinces. In Gauteng its support dropped by 14%. If this had been a provincial election then it would have lost its majority in the country’s economic heartland. In the mineral-rich North West province, it lost nearly 20% of the vote, dropping from 74% to 54%. In the Rustenburg municipality it lost its majority in the council, declining by a massive 23%. It is here where the Marikana massacre of 2012 took place, which partially accounts for the sharp fall in the ANC vote. Both wards of Marikana were won by the EFF.

The ANC also experienced decline in its major traditional strongholds. In the Eastern Cape it dropped from 71% to 65%; in Mpumalanga from 78% to 71%; in the Free State from 71% to 62% and in Limpopo from 81% to 69%.

In the Western Cape, which is the only province which it does not govern, the ANC fell to a new low of 26%. The dynamics in the Western Cape are very different to those of the rest of the country. One of the biggest factors affecting the decline of the ANC in Cape Town is the question of the majority coloured population. The African nationalist outlook of the ANC through policies like Black Economic Empowerment has eroded support for the party to such a degree that it now stands on the verge of being decimated here. The lack of a class alternative has allowed the DA to exploit this situation by providing superior council services to the coloured areas compared to the African areas, effectively dividing the working class and enabling a certain conservatism among coloured workers.

In the African townships the DA received less than 10% of the vote. But once again, even in its traditional strongholds the ANC did poorly. The dominant feature, again, is the low voter turnout. For example, in Khayelitsha the turnout dropped from 74% in 2011 to 56% in 2016 and the party received less votes than in 2011.

Only in Kwazulu-Natal did its support grow marginally from 56.7% to 57.4%.

An optical illusion   

If we look at the national result at a purely constituency level, then on the face of it the ANC still dominates by far. Out of the 4392 wards, the ANC won 3435, which is 78 % of all wards. It also won 176 councils. It is far more than the 24 of the right wing Democratic Alliance. But this completely masks the real situation. The majority of these councils are situated in the rural backward provinces with little or no economic significance.

In the urban areas the scale of the ANC’s decline becomes clearer. In the metropolitan areas where nearly two-thirds of the population is located, the ANC received several defeats. Prior to these elections the party governed every metro in the country except Cape Town, which is in the hands of the Democratic Alliance. But now the picture has changed. The party has made huge loses in all the metros. It has lost its majority in all the metros in Gauteng province which account for nearly 40% of the gross economic output. In the province as a whole the party has lost its majority, receiving 45.86% of the vote. In 2006 the party received nearly 62% of the vote.  Gauteng is the country’s most populous province. Nearly one-quarter of the population lives here.

In Johannesburg the ANC lost its majority, receiving 44.55% of the vote compared to 38.37% received by the DA. The DA then formed a minority government with the help of a number of smaller opposition parties. In the capital city of Tshwane where the internal battles of the ANC spilled onto the streets just prior to the elections, the ANC came in second, receiving 41.25% compared to 43.15% of the DA. It lost its majority in Ekurhuleni but managed to form a minority coalition government with a small regional party. It also lost its majority in Nelson Mandela Bay where the DA formed a minority government with smaller parties. This means that the ANC has lost three major metropolitan areas in the elections.

To give an indication of the true implications that the losses in the metros mean, it is enough to look at the size of these municipal budgets compared to the rest of the country. The big metros - Johannesburg, Tshwane, Ekurhuleni, Nelson Mandela Bay, Cape Town and eThekwini - are collectively responsible for 70% of economic output. This is where the bulk of the R287 billion operating budget for municipalities are located. The loss of these big cities together with other big centres like Mogale City means that the ANC’s control over operating municipal budgets has declined from 82% in 2011 to less than 42% in 2016.

The results of these elections represent a change in the political situation. Nationally the support for the ANC has declined from 61.9 in 2011 % to 53.1 % in 2016. This is the worst result the ANC has ever suffered, since the first local elections in 2000.

The results between national and local elections are not really comparable because of the different electoral systems used. The system used in national elections is based strictly on a proportional basis while in local elections a mixed system is used where the result is based on a formula which combines the constituency ward system, a district and metropolitan area council system and votes based on a proportional basis. But if we do this qualified comparison we can see that support for the ANC has declined drastically from an historic high of nearly 70 % in the 2004 national elections to its lowest point of 53.9% in the 2016 local elections.

A turn to the right?

In three of the big metropolitan areas, Tshwane, Johannesburg, and Nelson Mandela Bay, the Democratic Alliance were able to form minority governments with the help of smaller parties. However, this does not signify a turn to the right. The main feature of the elections is the sharp decline for the ANC, not the rise for the DA. This can be seen in the results. Despite the heavy losses by the ANC, the DA could not manage to win a single metro from the ANC through an outright majority. In fact, the gains of the DA were far lower than the ANC’s losses. Out of the 8% drop for the ANC, the DA picked up 3%.The picture becomes even clearer when we look at the shift in the number of council seats. Out of the 468 seats lost by the ANC, the DA gained 221. This is in contrast to the 761 seats which were gained by the EFF.

It is true that the DA has increased its support in Gauteng, especially among the black middle class. This has undoubtedly contributed to the gains that it has made. However, the biggest reason for its 3% increase is lower voter turnout for ANC voters and higher turnout in the DA areas. For instance, in Gauteng the turnout in the suburbs like Santon was above 70% while in the proletarian area of Soweto it was 50%. Similarly in Nelson Mandela Bay, which includes the industrial port city of Port Elizabeth, the turnout was down from 2011.

The biggest reason for the increase in the share of the vote by the DA was because it managed to rally its base in the Western Cape province. In the City of Cape Town the turnout was higher than in other metros at 64% which has favoured the DA. In the province as a whole it increased its vote to 63.3%. In Cape Town it won a two-thirds majority. The amount of support that the DA receives in the Western Cape becomes apparent by the fact that 20 out of the 24 councils it won outright are located here.

A debut for the EFF

This is the first time that the Economic Freedom Fighters have participated in local elections. It burst onto the scene in 2014 when it participated in the national and provincial elections as a six-month old party. On that occasion it received more than 1 million votes and 6% representation in the parliament. It also received more votes than the DA in two of the nine provinces.

In these local elections it received 8.1% of the vote and received 761 council seats nationally. As we mentioned above, because we are not comparing like-for-like, there are statistical difficulties in comparing national elections to local elections. However this does not in any way prevent us from assessing their performance.

The failure of the ANC to maintain its majority in the big councils in Gauteng province has meant that the question of coalitions was raised. To their credit the EFF has refused to form any coalitions with either the ANC or the DA. Had it decided to form an unprincipled coalition with the ANC, all its work of exposing the ANC leadership would have been undone. On the other hand, a coalition with the bourgeois DA would had disastrous consequences. It is no doubt a blow for the ruling class who wanted to water down the militancy and radicalism of the EFF by chaining them in coalitions with the DA.

Although  the EFF did relatively well for a three year old party, the main question we must ask ourselves is, why did it not do better? Why was the EFF not able to capitalise on the huge radicalisation and the declining authority of the ANC?

Why was the party not seen as an alternative to the ANC by the millions who are fed up with Zuma and the rest of the corrupt gang running the party?

In spite of the obvious decay of the party, the millions of voters who usually vote ANC decided either keep voting for them or just to stay away from the polls. Here the EFF’s approach to ANC is the key. While it was correct to expose the rot which has set in at ANC leadership, it has not made any distinction between the leadership of the party and its ranks. In fact the EFF is often seen as putting the ordinary supporters of the ANC on par with its leadership.

But recent events, including the election results shows that there are mass disillusionment in the ranks of the ANC. The fact that the party has lost close to 500,000 members over the last three years is also proof of this. There is a big difference between the leadership on the one side and the ranks and sympathisers on the other. Had the EFF leadership taken a correct approach by appealing directly to the ANC ranks and supporters to unite with it against the capitalist leders of the party, it could have attracted a big share of these layers.

Furthermore, when the EFF was formed, it was elected into parliament on a basis of its programme of land expropriation and the nationalisation of mines, banks and key industries. While it is true that it has kept its programme, it was evident that over time and especially during the campaign that the party has shifted its emphasis away from this. Increasingly the focus shifted to criticizing Zuma and the ANC leaders. Instead of emphasising the crisis of South African capitalism and focusing on the daily problems of the masses like jobs and housing, the perceptions were created that essentially it had become an “anti-ANC” party. Its election manifesto was full of rhetoric, but essentially boiled down to promising to be “better” councillors and “less corrupt” than the ANC.

Another element is the focus on black nationalist rhetoric rather than class-based rhetoric. This does not appeal to the advanced workers who criticized the same phenomenon in the tripartite alliance.This was on top of a period where the party flirted with the idea of forming some kind of alliance with the DA.

This put a barrier between the party and the millions of youth and workers who are looking for a palpable alternative. Aside from the many million youth who stayed home rather than voting for the EFF, the party didn’t manage to penetrate the organised working class in any significant way either. For example, in big proletarian areas its support was negligible. In Nelson Mandela Bay which includes the industrial city of Port Elizabeth, it only received 5% of the vote. Even in Soweto, where it campaigned heavily, the biggest feature at the polls was a low turnout rather than a big swing to the EFF.

At the same time the other major left formation in the country, NUMSA did not offer an alternative to the ANC either. Aside from keeping a distance from the EFF, thereby dividing the most radical elements of the workers and youth, NUMSA have also not delivered on resolutions at its last national congress to form a party of the working class by 2016. Had it done so then the political landscape could have been completely reshaped. With its huge political authority and organisational capabilities, its huge resources and its base in the organised working class, NUMSA could have outperformed all the achievements of the EFF over the last three years by a long way and could even have challenged the ANC for the leading position. The experience of the EFF shows that the ground is fertile for a mass party of the working class.

A qualitative leap

Bourgeois elections are an important measure with which to gauge the mood of the masses. The outcome of the local government elections means an acceleration in the general processes in South African society. The already unstable situation has received a leap forward. The new era of unstable minority local governments will add to the general turbulent situation. All the major decisions at local level like the passing of budgets and by-laws requires a majority decision in councils. In many of these councils agreement will have to be sought on every single issue. This level of instability means that many of them could collapse at any time. This will in turn feed into the general instability and turbulence which are already defining features of South African capitalism.

We have repeatedly said that there is a deep malaise in South African society. In the past this mood was expressed in different ways. In the runup to the 2007 Polokwane conference it was expressed through the ANC where the big business faction of Thabo Mbeki was removed. Later the mood of the working class was expressed with an explosion of strikes and a dramatic rise in the class struggle. But on both occasions the left wing of the ANC and the alliance failed to provide a socialist programme and a revolutionary way out to the workers.

The failure of the left wing at the 2012 Mangaung conference to provide an alternative resulted in a sharp right wing turn in the ANC. The result was mass disillusionment both in the party ranks and and in its support base. This effect was compounded by the crises and splits in the trade union movement. In the ANC it was reflected with the decline of membership from 1.2 million to about 750 000.  

The loss of support by the African National Congress in the elections represents a qualitative change in the situation. For decades the ANC has virtually monopolised the support of the black population. Generations of people have grown up in its ranks. But now after two decades of capitalist rule large parts of South African society have drawn far reaching conclusions. This is a process which have been reflected in the class struggle. The rise in the class struggle over the last period signified that the advanced workers were looking for a way out. The events surrounding NUMSA and its allies three years ago was a sign of this. What these elections show is that this process is deepening.

A major factor over the coming period is the fate of the ANC. Major developments over last few years including the the movement to the left of the party now means that the situation inside the party has been transformed. Already we have an outline of possible future developments. Over the last few months we have seen that the party is now divided between two right wing factions. On the one hand there is the bigger faction around Zuma which lean on the rural areas and the more backward elements in society. This is the more openly corrupt faction which derive their wealth from tenders, state contracts and corruption of state resources. On the other hand there is the big business faction around the Gauteng leadership and the secretary-general, Mantashe. The election result has renewed the hostilities between the two factions. Already there are calls for an early congress of the party.

The crisis in the ANC represents a crisis for the bourgeoisie as a whole. For the last two decades the ruling class has relied on the ANC leaders to hold back the masses. The Marikana massacre of 2012 was a major turning point in this regard. It signified a qualitative change in the situation. Since then the party has been rocked by one crisis after the other. Now the collapse of its moral and political authority means that the ruling class can no longer rely on it to hold the masses back It means a general acceleration in the class struggle.