Local Election Watch

The battle for local government control has started

Mmusi Maimane already campaigning

With at most 14 months to go, campaigning for next year’s nationwide municipal elections has started in earnest. Much more than just who will occupy mayoral offices is at stake.

Last year’s general election already started to reflect shifts taking place in South Africa’s political power relations, especially in urban areas. Next year’s municipal elections, somewhere between 18 May and 18 August, will indicate whether this trend is gaining momentum or whether the ANC will retain its post-1994 dominance.

At local government level materially different factors, some systemic and others psychological, are creating a totally different political environment than at national and provincial level.

Immediately after last year’s general election we wrote: “ … in that context the 2016 local government elections are much more likely to offer a psychological bridge to (voters to) cross the emotional barrier to – for the first time – vote for another party or entity than the ANC as the traditional flag-bearer for the ‘Liberation Struggle’. It just might deliver the watershed moment in changing the political mood in the country.”

Bridge under construction

Since then a number of developments within the South African body politic have manifested to strengthen the pillars, and create new ones, for that bridge.

Most important of these is the process of disintegration of the labour federation and government ‘alliance partner’, COSATU. Increasing diversion between official government policy and the stance of the other alliance partner, the South African Communist Party (SACP), on matters like the privatisation or partial privatisation of, currently in deep crisis, Eskom.

One of the results of this situation is that the ANC has on a number of fronts been caught up in implementation paralysis in terms of its own policies, including the core policies of the National Development Plan.

At the same time other developments outside the ANC have been taking place to create more attractive political homes for substantial pockets of traditional ANC voters. These developments include:

  • The formation of a new political movement, the United Front (UF), to the left of the ANC, acting as a political platform for disaffected unions and other leftist groups, soon likely to launch a new socialist workers’ party in direct opposition to the ANC;
  • The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) who has had an opportunity to exploit their parliamentary presence as a platform to gain prominence as a meaningful political force and to latch onto populist causes, especially among younger voters, disaffected communities, the unemployed and the poor, with radical stances; and
  • The Democratic Alliance that has changed the face of its leadership dramatically to being predominantly black, not only making it easier for black voters to ‘cross  the bridge’, but also rather to concentrate on ‘issue politics’, which tend to dominate in the rapidly expanding urban areas of the country with its growing middle class;

Some way to go

There is still some way to go and some battles to be fought, among others the crucial demarcation of wards in the various municipalities, and much can still happen.

What will also play a key role, especially for newer and smaller parties, is to what extent they can succeed in building local structures and organisations at grass-roots level before the real election time comes around.

With the more direct involvement and interest at stake for candidates it is also an opportunity to get structures in place with an eye on 2019’s next general election. The municipal election is the time for all parties to establish local structures and leadership/command capacities.

It is likely to be an especially testing time for the smaller parties presently in parliament.

Parties like the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), the Congress of the People (COPE), the United Democratic Movement (UDM) and Agang SA seem to continue their downward slide. A number of other smaller parties remain static.

However, in a number of municipalities the seats any of these parties may win, could hold the balance of power for potential coalition control. This could lend momentum to the development of coalition politics, something we foresee developing as it is facilitated at national and provincial level by the constitution.

The importance of these smaller parties cannot be ignored. What should, however, be kept in mind is that while the exclusively proportional electoral system at national and provincial level functions to the advantage of smaller parties, at local level, where the weight lies with geographically based ward-representatives, it works the other way round.

Be that as it may, the campaign and preparations for next year’s election have at least for the bigger parties started in earnest, as illustrated by:

  • The ANC moving Danny Jordaan into the mayoral position in the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Council, where it has become very vulnerable, and in the way opposition parties have reacted and zoomed in on Jordaan’s troubles surrounding the 2010 Fifa Football World Cup;
  • The way in which new DA leader, Mmusi Maimane, has used his election as an opportunity to embark on a countrywide campaign tour, including door-to-door walkabouts in areas like Gauteng’s Soweto;
  • The EFF cashing in on populist fever by suggesting name changes for towns in the Western Cape linked to a colonial history; and
  • The ANC embarking on a programme aimed at consolidating its rural more tradition-bound support base. in the face of the effects of rapid urbanisation on its election results last year, using their incumbency in government to shore up their relationship with traditional power structures.

Last year’s general election starting reshaping the South African political landscape, both in terms of ending the all-dominating role of a single political party and paving the way for coalition governance. Next year’s municipal elections are shaping up to strengthen these trends.

(Also read Let's Think.)

by Piet Coetzer & Stef Terblanche

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