Will the ANC get the electorate’s message?

After a busy three days of counting, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) declared South Africa’s 2016 local government elections ‘free and fair’.

The IEC’s admirable efforts in running a complex election was, however, overshadowed when protestors holding anti-rape signs reminded those gathered to hear the final results of President Jacob Zuma’s many scandals – this time his own rape trial 10 years ago.

One cannot help but think that these scandals, and the ruling party’s failure to recognise their significance, is at the heart of why the African National Congress (ANC) bled urban voters in this election. Zuma remains central to the ANC’s woes and the real question now is whether the ANC is nimble and united enough to get the message voters sent unequivocally last week?

It has been on Zuma’s watch that the ANC’s electoral dominance has diminished. In the 2011 local elections, the ANC secured 63% of the vote. In this election, its support waned to 54.5% and the Democratic Alliance (DA) increased from 24% to 27%. It’s something of a turning point for the ANC to have its support fall below 60%. It represents a deeply uncomfortable position for a once near hegemonic party. It was, after all, Zuma who said, ‘the ANC will rule until Jesus comes’.

But the stakes were not only high for Zuma and the ANC. The DA needed to prove its claim as the only credible opposition to the ANC with a national footprint. Moreover, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) needed to demonstrate substance and structure beyond the theatrics of Parliament, rhetoric and stadium rallies.

Across the country, the EFF polled at 8.2% – up from its general election result of 6.4% in 2014, which represents a modest gain relative to the party’s ambitions. Nevertheless, the party will play an outsize role due to its potential kingmaker status.

In Johannesburg for instance, the EFF garnered 11% of the vote and will no doubt be wooed by both the ANC (with 44.6%) and the DA (with 38.4%) as coalition partners. EFF leader Julius Malema said the EFF would never enter a coalition with the ANC. Yet, politics is a strange beast. In Tshwane the EFF holds 11.7% to the DA’s 43% and the ANC’s 41%, and so will again be a key player in any coalition talks.

Opinion polls had predicted that the ANC would lose support. In three metros – Tshwane, Johannesburg and Nelson Mandela Bay – coalition governments will now shape a new kind of politics. In the 14 days that parties have to form a coalition government, the stakes will be high as horse-trading becomes intense.

What is clear is that the deep divisions within the ANC have been laid bare in these elections. Quite how the party will manage these schisms remains to be seen. Thus far, it has not been able to do so.

The historic and symbolic significance of Nelson Mandela Bay falling out of the ANC’s grip has probably not yet registered with South Africans. The Eastern Cape, after all, is the historic heartland of the ANC. ANC Treasurer General Zweli Mkhize admitted that the party suffered losses because of its own ‘internal issues’.

Former secretary general, and former state president Kgalema Motlanthe bemoaned that a party afflicted by ‘bogus’ structures had ultimately ‘lost the plot’. One wonders whether Zuma must feel the sting of this loss or whether he cares less about the metros and more about the rural provinces and securing his own power within the party? That seems to be the crucial question as the ANC heads towards its elective conference in December 2017 and the next general election in 2019.

The DA on the other hand performed more than credibly, and has, again, successfully negotiated a change in leadership at the top of the party ticket while continuing to demonstrate growth at the base. Its steady march has vindicated those who backed Mmusi Maimane’s leadership of the party.

The DA managed to ‘get out the vote’ in suburban areas and hence did well in the metros specifically. It is now in a position to negotiate in Nelson Mandela Bay, Tshwane and possibly even Johannesburg – presenting it with a significant stage to demonstrate its alternative form of government. Its true test will be managing coalitions and delivering services in what will no doubt be politically complex situations.

The DA must now navigate the process of coalition building and the values that will underpin coalitions, beyond simply un-seating the ANC. This will require political generosity and tolerance that is often missing in our political discourse, and the days ahead will test the DA, ANC and particularly the EFF’s political maturity and nous.

The elections also raise fundamental questions about the nature and character of the ANC, and South Africa’s urban-rural divide. Under Zuma, the ANC has retained and strengthened its rural dominance, but has concurrently failed to nurture and build urban constituencies, to the detriment of the party’s future.

Zuma has previously lambasted ‘clever Blacks’ who dared to question deepening corruption and state capture. On Thursday, ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe declared that ‘Black people did not value their vote’ as much as white people did. Has the ANC become deaf to protest action and the dismal state of many municipalities?

There are also important Constitutional lessons for the ANC. South Africa’s Constitution envisages a powerful participatory democracy that is about more than simply casting a vote every five years. The ANC has been too distracted by its internal factionalism to really build links with communities and listen to citizens’ concerns.

South Africans have sent the ANC a powerful message ahead of the 2019 general election. But can the ruling party draw on its depleting reserves to deal with the liability that Zuma and his cronies have become to the party and the country? More than that, is the ANC capable of renewing itself in line with the democratic, political and economic needs of the country?

One thing these elections have shown is that change is not an elusive concept.

*This article was published in Polity.org.za. To view the article on their website click here

Judith February is a consultant on governance matters and affiliated to the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Development Policy and Practice.  Prior to that she was Executive Director of the HSRC’s Democracy and Governance Unit and also Head of the Idasa’s South African Governance programme.  Judith has worked extensively on issues of good governance, transparency and accountability within the South African context.  She is a regular commentator in the media on politics in SA and in 2009 served on an ad hoc panel to evaluate the effectiveness of South Africa’s Parliament. She is a regular columnist for Media24 and also an occasional columnist for the Daily Maverick and other publications.  She is the co-editor of “Testing democracy: which way is South Africa going?” March 2010, Idasa. She was awarded a summer fellowship in 2009 at the Freeman Spogli Institute for Democracy Development and the rule of law at Stanford University, California and in 2012 was awarded a Spring Reagan-Fascell Fellowship at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington DC.

To see Judith February's extensive list of publications on our website please click here.

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