Role of civil society post-2016 Local Government Elections

Introduction: Shifting Power

Following the 3 August 2016 local government elections which have shifted not only local government, but also societal power away from the governing ANC, civil society will have to find new roles for itself or risk becoming irrelevant.

The recent local government elections have reshaped South Africa’s post-apartheid politics. Most of South Africa’s major metropolitan areas are now in opposition hands. In many places where the ANC is in control, it is either with narrow victories or the party governing in coalitions. Smaller municipalities where the ANC has won – both in rural and urban areas, the party has reduced majorities.

The bulk of South Africa’s delivery of public services takes place at the metropolitan and municipal level. Opposition parties and coalitions are now in charge of public service delivery in significant local municipalities in South Africa. The ANC, although in control of national government and most of the provinces, is now in opposition in significant metropoles and municipalities across the country.

South Africa’s municipalities are essentially divided into those that are revenue generating – with significant industries, businesses middle classes – and those that are not. Most of the revenue generating municipalities are either in opposition hands or in coalitions. Where the ANC has regained control of such revenue generating  entities during the local government elections, these had been  regained with reduced majorities.

Overall the ANC has maintained control in many municipalities that are not revenue generating – do not have significant tax bases, businesses, industries and middle classes  that are not dependent on government. Such municipalities are mostly dependent on transfers from national government – and therefore heavily dependent on the national fiscus. Generally the municipalities heavily dependent on national government have had the worse service delivery record, low capacity, and control over public resources has been heavily contested within them

Overall, given poor economic growth, ineffective public service delivery and wastages of public resources through corruption, there are generally less and ever diminishing public resources available for transfers of resources from national government to struggling municipalities – particularly those ones with little revenue sources.

ANC in government, but waning legitimacy

The ANC is still in government nationally, but has lost or is losing overall national legitimacy. So far, this fact has not been recognised by the current ANC leadership, and appears unlikely to be understood by them. The possible consequences are that the ANC potentially will be unable to self-correct before the 2019 national elections, and therefore stands in danger of losing more ground; public legitimacy and ultimately that election too.

The ANC’s reduced power at municipal level means that the party has less patronage to dispense at that level. This will increase the competition within the party itself for control and access to increasingly limited public resources at the municipal level. This in itself will undermine the ANC’s ability to govern and deliver services in the areas it is in charge – which again will lead to declining support in these areas.

Because the ANC is now in charge with reduced majorities – in the municipalities it won, new sites of opposition and oversight have emerged, where the ANC in the past may have had unfettered and dominant control. The question is: will the ANC be able to govern in the municipalities it still runs under the conditions of reduced power, new and increased opposition and public finance constraints?

At national level there is, and will be, paralysis because policies introduced or implemented by the ANC, even if ostensibly for the good of the country, will be ignored or resisted on the ground. The ANC’s loss of key municipalities is also generally perceived by ordinary voters (this is reflected in the public discourse also) – those who support the ANC or those who not – as the ANC having “lost” power. This is of course not necessarily true and unfair – but it is the reality.

Because of the partial loss of real governing power by the ANC, the perception that the ANC is on the decline, and the infighting within the ANC itself at the local level over the reduced public services in its control, disgruntled citizens, groups and opposition parties now see the opportunity to press their own demands, whether through increased protests, criticisms and anti-ANC demobilisation. It is therefore likely that South Africa will now enter into a post-apartheid era of rising “service delivery” protests against (the party?)

Of course, before this, “service delivery” protests against poor government services, corruption, waste and lack of accountability was already among the highest in the world. This is now likely to escalate. The new post-2016 local government elections reality is that the ANC, although in government, will not be in dominant control anymore. The ANC will therefore have increasingly limited power through public patronage, let alone through public persuasion and appeals (because of its declining moral authority) to appease “service delivery” protests.

The ANC is only likely to retain transactional power –as it has lost its moral persuasion power, credibility and believability, because of rising public perceptions of waste, corruption and unaccountability. It will have to appease rising protests movements through meeting their financial or other demands, even if these demands will put constraints on the national fiscus .

New era of coalition politics in South Africa

South Africa has now entered a new era of coalition politics at the local government level. It is very likely that coalition-politics will become the future of politics in South Africa overall – at both national and provincial levels, starting with the coming 2019 national elections. But new coalitions are also likely to appear in non-political areas also.

This also heralds a new era of rising political protests against governments at national, provincial and local government elections. It is likewise ushers in a new era of ordinary citizens actively demanding government to “deliver”. Ordinary citizens, buoyant that their vote “counts” because many have actually seen it actioned (through the loss of power of the ANC in key municipalities), are likely to find a renewed voice to agitate for accountability, better public services and clean government from public representatives.

The ANC tripartite alliance is also likely to fragment further over disputes over how to deal with President Jacob Zuma; who should succeed him and what to make of the ANC’s electoral loss in the 2016 local government elections. We are likely to see more breakaways from the ANC – which will add to new political coalitions. As the ANC loses the power of patronage, more members are likely to join opposition parties, form new ones or stand as independents.

It is very possible that the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) will splinter further, as the leadership’s continued uncritical support of President Zuma and the ANC and Zuma’s anointed successor, coupled with the likelihood that the ANC national government will not improve service delivery because of its own internal divisions.

Furthermore it is also very likely that the South African Communist Party (SACP) will also splinter as those opposed to President Zuma, his successor, and the party’s failures in government may want to form new formations or join opposition forces, such as the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

Aside from which the ANC could very well see another breakaway as those opposed to President Zuma and his anointed successor, may want to form their own party or join current opposition forces.

How can civil society find new roles given the shifting power in South Africa?  

Civil society will have to provide leadership, ideas and oversight in this new phase in South Africa’s democracy. Opposing for the sake of it won’t be of much help. Neither will being doggedly ideological.

To do so, civil society will have to form better coalitions among itself and also with communities around key issues. Civil society organisations must pool resources, integrate its programmes and must collaborate more creatively. They must remain relevant by promoting holistic solutions to complex problems facing communities, rather than focus on donor-driven short term Band-Aid ones.

Civil society will have to more effectively support democratic institutions. Given rising expected public protests, they will have to play a stronger oversight role over security, police and intelligence institutions. Civil society organisations must also play a stronger role at all levels of government in monitoring and evaluating the implementation of promised government programmes, and the quality thereof, rather than the current way in which experts “monitor” and “evaluate” such programmes.

Civil society should push to make government policies and decision-making more participative. It can learn from Brazil, where in Porto Alegre, the capital city of the Rio Grande do Sul state in Brazil, civil society pioneered community participation in budgeting at the city level. The city introduced “participatory budgeting” in 1990, a year after the Workers’ Party (PT) came to power. The city administration in partnership with community groups, neighbourhood movements and trade unions has through participatory decision-making dramatically improved public service delivery.

Currently, politics whether practiced by leaders of the ANC, the opposition, or at street level are often conducted in very ill-tempered ways. Civil society leaders could help encourage the fostering of a political environment where politics are conducted with greater maturity, dignity and mindfulness of others, and where political actors use less destructive ways to get their views across.

But civil society could encourage constructive coalition building in all sectors of South African society, whether in the workplace to maintain industrial peace, or by fostering social pacts between business, labour and government to create jobs, by boosting development and growth, or by bringing opposing parties together to find long-term solutions to the raging current crisis in higher education.

*This article is based on the Inyathelo Institute for Advancement Dialogue on the Implications of the Election Results on Civil Society hosted on 4 October, with Stanley Henkeman, Director of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation and Nomfundo Walalza, Acting CEO of Inyathelo. 

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

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