Constitutional Watch

The eve of dramatic political change in SA?

Cities’ towering political clout

South Africa is probably closer to a dramatic change in political power relations in the country than is generally appreciated. 

With all the existing major political parties having, for all intents and purposes, declared the start of their respective campaigns for next year’s local government elections, it is fight-on for the heart of South African politics.

And, as already became clear in last year’s national elections, that heart lies in the urban areas – particularly the eight major metropolitan areas and a further 12 large municipalities. This represents a trend found throughout the world.

According to a report of the United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), 54% of the world’s population presently lives in urban areas and is expected to increase to 66% by 2050. This increase will come mainly from Asia and Africa.

South Africa’s 2011 census put its urban population at almost 61% and the government’s National Development Plan (NDP) forecasts that by 2030 more than 70% of the population will be living in urban areas.

Judged by estimates released by the World Bank last year, the 2030 time frame might be an under-estimation of the pace at which urbanisation is taking place in South Africa. It puts the urban population by 2014 at already 64% ¬¬-- a rate at which the 70% mark will be reached by 2024.

Of the 31,3 million urbanites (people living in a town of more than 15 000 people) counted in Census 2011, some 20,4 million or just more than 65% lived in the country’s eight largest metros. Those metros also represented 40% of the total population or 52 million-plus.

Dominance of metros

In a recent presentation Robert Muggah, research director of the Canada-based “think-do-tank” Igarapé Institute, said that in the decades to come cities and not states will decide stability and development.

From an economic and social development perspective the fact that South Africa is following this trend is good news. “More than half of humanity now lives in cities, and it’s been incredible successful. The countries with populations more than 50% urbanized have incomes five times higher and infant mortality three times lower than countries that haven’t passed that,” says Ed Glaeser, an economist at Harvard University and author of Triumph of the City.

The economic power of urban centres is well illustrated by the fact that 60% of global GDP is generated by 600 cities spread around the world. In South Africa its most urbanised province, Gauteng, contributes about 34% of the total national GDP.

With the metros’ numbers and economic power also comes political clout and even dominance. And as the national election results of May last year indicated, political sentiment in South Africa’s metropolitan areas are shifting.

The cities have started to assert themselves and the governing ANC might have committed a tactical error with its emphasis on rural South Africa in their election manifesto and campaigning. Rhetoric and declared intensions of late by the ANC seem to indicate that it has realised this folly and is changing tack in this regard.

After the May 2014 elections Steven Friedman already wrote that for the ANC the results “… showed that it cannot afford to be complacent about Gauteng or its three metropolitan areas — Johannesburg, Tshwane and Ekurhuleni — where it won only between 51% and 56%. In Nelson Mandela Bay, which includes Port Elizabeth, it dropped below 50%. It’s no longer fanciful to suggest the next local elections in these areas may deprive it of a majority, forcing it into coalitions.”

Judged by what has happened in parliament and on the broader political scene since, coalitions between the ANC and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) look very unlikely. Add to this the prospect of a party to the left of the ANC from the ranks of the just-launched United Front and the possibility of coalitions between the ANC and the Democratic Alliance (DA) is not as farfetched as it might sound right now.

As things stand, the ANC and the DA, especially in metropolitan areas, are competing for the same middle class political ‘market’. And, on the parliamentary front the DA’s parliamentary leader has to some extent offered a olive branch of sorts to the ANC regarding President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation Address (SONA).

In November last year we wrote: “The new phase in the realignment of South African politics is bound to be a messy, often confusing process and, judged by what is happening on other fronts, at times a violent one.”; and ““Only time will tell what the profile of politics and government structures will look like in South Africa going forward, but it is clear that the forces facilitated by the fundamentals of the 1997 constitution have brought it to the brink of a phase of transition to a more nuanced dispensation of internal checks and balances.”

The build-up to next year’s local government elections is shaping up to delivering an event that can give considerable momentum to dramatic political change in South Africa.

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by Piet Coetzer

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