To the outsider, the voting patterns in South Africa’s recent municipal elections may appear insignificant. For South Africans, the political landscape has changed fundamentally. The grip that the African National Congress (ANC), the ruling party and the oldest liberation movement on the African continent, once had on the country’s politics has shifted. This should not come as a surprise. The writing has been on the wall for some time.
Polls in the run-up to the elections provided the first signs that South Africans no longer trust the ANC based on its history or the role it played in bringing democracy to the country. The election results are a major setback for Nelson Mandela’s party, the once mighty organization that dominated the South African political landscape for the past 22 years.
The Edelman Trust Barometer has also been pointing to a lack of trust in the ANC government for a few years now and this is evidenced by the percentage of informed public who trust the government (16 percent) versus the percentage who trust business (75 percentage). The general population results echo this trend as only 16 percent trust the government whereas 60 percent trust business. Compared to the global figure, South Africa faces a larger trust gap between government and business, with 42 percent of the general population trusting their country’s government and 53 percent trusting business.
The governing party’s share of the national vote fell from above 60 percent in 2011 to 54 percent in the recent elections. For any other ruling party in an established democracy, 54 percent support from its populace might be a vote of confidence, but not for the ANC, which previously enjoyed a two-thirds majority in several municipalities. Political analysts believe the ANC’s leadership should take the blame for the party’s dismal showing at the polls.
The major beneficiary from the ANC’s loss was the Democratic Alliance (DA), which increased its support from 24 percent in 2011 to 27 percent. In the process, the party has been given the opportunity to govern South Africa’s financial powerhouse, Johannesburg; the administrative capital, Tshwane; and the important Nelson Mandela Bay municipality. This can only be achieved if the DA forms coalitions with smaller parties as it did not get an outright majority in these areas. This is unlike its overwhelming victory in the City of Cape Town, where the DA attracted the support of more than 65 percent of the voters.
Coalition, a concept most South Africans are still unfamiliar with, is the new game in town. No coalitions have been formed at the time of writing, but feverish negotiations were going on behind the scenes between all of the political parties. The DA is trying to form partnerships in key municipalities with other smaller opposition parties such as the Economic Freedom Fighters, which obtained eight percent of the vote after contesting the municipal elections for the first time.
But negotiating coalitions is just one of the many challenges the DA will face if it wants to put its stamp on the country. Although the results show that the ANC has lost support mostly in urban areas across South Africa, the party’s support also declined in many of the nine provinces, especially in its former strongholds such as Free State, Eastern Cape, North West and Limpopo, where it dropped from 81 percent support in 2011to 69 percent. But this loss of support did not necessarily translate into support for the DA. The “stay-away” vote, which some analysts estimated as high as three million voters, is huge compared to the roughly 15 million voters who went to the polls. These disenchanted voters are the people the DA would need to convince if it wants to become a serious contender at the national level, the ultimate prize.
If the DA wants to win significant power during the 2019 national elections, it will have to pull out all the stops. The party has demonstrated, through managing Cape Town and other municipalities, that it runs a clean administration with good governance practices, helping its aspirations. Whether this is enough to wrestle more votes from the ANC remains to be seen. The important thing is that the DA has laid a solid foundation and it needs to build on this good track record, but it cannot do so on its own. It needs other opposition parties, not just to form coalitions, but to also strengthen its appeal to voters, particularly ANC voters who would not normally consider opposition politics.
A great deal of the DA’s future growth depends on the ANC weakening further – something quite possible under the current leadership. This has not happened yet and as proven before, the ANC can still turn back from its own incompetence and arrogance, but only if it is prepared for deep introspection and some significant changes to its current leadership structure.
Rikus Delport, group account director, Edelman South Africa.
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