A Primer on South Africa’s Municipal Elections: What’s at Stake and Why it Matters

On August 3, South Africans go to the polls to vote in the country’s fifth local government elections since the end of apartheid. Although municipal elections seldom draw much international attention, this year the stakes are particularly high in South Africa. Since it championed the struggle to liberate the country from apartheid under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, the African National Congress (ANC) has dominated South African politics and easily maintained a loyal voter base. But more than twenty years since the end of apartheid, all is not well in “the rainbow nation.” President Jacob Zuma has been plagued by scandal – with over 700 charges pending against him (the charges were recently reinstated by a high court after a failed appeal attempt), the president has been embroiled in corruption charges after he spent public money on costly upgrades to his private luxury estate. Rising economic woes, poor service delivery and rampant inequality have spurred numerous protests across the country. Many of these demonstrations have turned violent, and the South African Human Rights Commission has registered its concern about the increase in politically related killings ahead of the elections. The ANC is now poised to lose some of its urban strongholds – a development that would signal the end of the party’s exclusive grip on power, and could usher in the beginning of some precarious coalition politics in advance of what would undoubtedly be a highly contested national election in 2019.

The Issues

Corruption, unemployment and poor local service delivery are the core issues in this municipal election. Many South Africans previously disadvantaged under the apartheid government are frustrated by the fact that their living conditions are not much improved since 1994 when the country officially transitioned to democracy – 21.7 percent of South Africans live in extreme poverty unable to meet their basic nutritional requirements. Official unemployment figures hit a twelve-year high in the first quarter of 2016, reaching 26.7 percent. But not everyone is so badly off – the gap between rich and poor is growing as party elites and those on the “inside” continue to enrich themselves. Less connected “outsider” citizens are aware that in addition to the consequences of institutionalized exclusion, there is an indisputable link between their lack of opportunity and the enrichment of the elite bureaucrats controlling the purse strings of government coffers.

The Players

In recent years, the ANC has increasingly been forced to rely on  its liberation struggle credentials to draw supportive voters to the polls. Inter-party heckling over the use of Nelson Mandela’s legacy as a campaign tool highlights the disproportionate reliance that the party has on its ownership of South Africa’s icon of freedom.  But the party’s branding can only carry it so far – many loyal voters are disillusioned by the lack of improvement in their circumstances and are losing patience. Factionalism is rife, and the party is mired in corruption allegations and its inability to revive the ailing economy. Aware of its precarious position, the ANC made some controversial candidate choices. The nomination of an outsider to stand for the contested municipality of Tshwane ignited warring ANC factions and sparked violent protests.  Just last week, an ANC ward councilor candidate was killed in the Nelson Mandela Municipality – the urban area most likely to fall into opposition control.

Voters disenchanted with the performance of the ANC have an appetite for change. The Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) are the two major contenders. The DA is South Africa’s leading opposition party – a liberal party that has set itself apart with track record of transparent governance. The DA elected Mmusi Maimane as its first black leader in May 2015, but has struggled to distance itself from its historically white reputation. The DA first gained control over Cape Town – the only one of eight major metropoles currently controlled by the opposition – through a coalition with seven smaller parties in the 2006 election. After bringing Cape Town under its jurisdiction, the DA then went on to win the Western Cape Province. In the 2014 election, the DA won 22.23 percent of the popular vote.

The EFF – a party that identifies itself as a “radical and militant economic emancipation movement” positioned left of the ANC – is contesting their first local election this year. Established three years ago by expelled ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, the controversial party won twenty-five parliamentary seats in the 2014 national election. The EFF’s rhetoric has had particular appeal to South Africa’s youth – of whom 63 percent (3.2 million) are unemployed. This week, EFF leadership met with former president Thabo Mbeki, purportedly to court his vote ahead of Wednesday’s election. Mbeki was ‘recalled’ from the presidency by the ANC in 2008 amid allegations that he had “misused his power”, and has refused to campaign on behalf of the party this year. 

The Future?

There is no question as to whether the ANC will suffer significant losses in this pivotal election. Rather, the question that remains is how significant these losses will be. Polls commissioned by a private broadcasting company show the DA leading in three of the most contested municipal areas: Tshwane in which the administrative capital Pretoria is situated, Nelson Mandela Bay, encompassing Port Elizabeth, and Johannesburg. However, given the paucity of available polling data it is difficult to know for sure how credible these predictions are.  A single opposition party winning a majority is unlikely, but the ANC dropping below the 50 percent mark would be enough to substantially unsettle the political status quo. That being said, the ANC’s legacy remains a force to be reckoned with, and for the DA and the EFF to make a breakthrough in the contested municipalities, many ANC voters will need to either stay home or cross the floor.

Chloë McGrath is a visiting fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. You can follow her on Twitter @malawicoffee.

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Image: President Jacob Zuma speaks at a 2010 event. Credit: Screengrab from DailyMaverick video.