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South Africa’s ANC has remained dominant despite shifts in support base

The ANC’s top brass at the party’s rally ahead of municipal elections. Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

South Africa’s ANC has remained dominant despite shifts in support base

As democracy in South Africa matures, an inevitable question ahead of any election is whether the African National Congress (ANC) – the governing party since 1994 – is becoming a rural party. This is because the ANC’s support in urban areas has been in decline while, in relative terms, it remains popular in rural areas.

This isn’t a pattern peculiar to South Africa. Liberation movements that became governing parties following their respective countries’ independence enjoyed wide popularity in the earlier years of independence. But over time this has tended to fizzle out, largely in urban areas.

Many of these liberation-movements-cum-governing-parties now depend on countryside support for political longevity. This includes instances where power has been usurped by military coups.

Robert Mugabe’s grip on power in Zimbabwe, for example, is maintained by a countryside support. The urban vote is with the Movement for Democratic Change. In Uganda, Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army survives on the countryside support.

Is the ANC destined to follow the same path, surviving on countryside vote? At first glance it may appear so. But some circumspection is necessary. Yes, the ANC’s electoral support has been declining in urban areas, but not uniformly and not to the extent that has, so far, affected the party’s very substantial overall majority.

The question is top of mind ahead of the country’s fifth local government elections on August 3 because a fierce contest is expected in three major cities: Tshwane, Nelson Mandela Bay and Johannesburg. Will these contests show opposition parties on the rise in major urban areas, and the ANC in decline? The answer to this question appears rather obvious, especially in these three major cities. But does this immediately make the ANC a rural party?

African party systems

Interrogating African party systems is a useful way in trying to understand electoral hegemony and the countryside vote.

Political scientists Shaheen Mozaffar and James Scarritt explain that the African party systems are characterised by “low fragmentation and high volatility”.

Low fragmentation is manifest “in low levels of electoral and legislative competitiveness and high vote-seat disproportionality”. This is illustrated by the fact that there are very few examples on the continent of countries that have parties with relatively equal electoral strength.

Volatility occurs when “small numbers of large parties” dominate the political space, reducing the “large numbers of small parties” into insignificance. Those that fail to achieve the barest electoral threshold instantly bite the dust. Those that manage to secure small representation in the legislative bodies tend to fade over time.

ANC supporters take a break from hanging election posters in Lydenburg, Mpumalanga province. Reuters/Marius Bosch

Between governing parties and the smaller parties there are opposition parties. These at least have the electoral strength to sustain their political presence. But the margin of their votes relative to those of the governing parties is disproportionate.

Opposition parties tend to concentrate on urban areas where electoral contests are fierce and where disaffection with governing parties is high. But urban votes do not immediately displace the electoral hegemony of governing parties, particularly those that were previously liberation movements.

The reasons for this include that:

  • that political capital that liberation-movements-cum-governing-parties build over a long period of anti-colonial struggle;

  • they are able to dispense state largesse and patronage;

  • they are able to suppress, or ban, opposition parties; and

  • people living in urban centres are not as accommodating of liberation movements as those living in the countryside, where parties that do not have struggle credentials are treated with suspicion.

It’s against this background that events in South Africa should be understood.

The ANC’s competitive edge

The ANC has been the dominant party in all of South Africa’s five general elections. The margin of votes has always been disproportionate, with opposition parties far distant and smaller parties at the fringes.

For all intents and purposes, South Africa is a single-party state, although the principle of the supremacy of the Constitution empowers opposition parties to hold the ANC accountable.

The ANC is the majority party in parliament and governs in all but one of the country’s nine provinces, the Western Cape being the exception.

The electoral campaign of the largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), is fashioned around Nelson Mandela’s legacy. The Economic Freedom Front (EFF), a new and much smaller party, presents itself as the true custodian of the “revolution” that the ANC has supposedly betrayed.

The ANC’s competitive edge comes from the fact that Mandela and the Freedom Charter are an integral part of its political capital. Coupled with its credentials as a liberation movement, and the extent to which it has dispensed state largesse as a governing party since it came into power in 1994, the ANC’s electoral hegemony has largely been sustained by its political capital. This is where its strength lies.

The opposition parties know this, which is why they have tried to use their electoral strategies to snatch away the ANC’s political capital.

Like any investment, political capital is not infinite. The DA and EFF have been buoyed by the electoral outcome of the 2014 general election, in which support for the ANC dropped by an average of nine percentage points in four out of the country’s eight major cities.

The Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection’s research on voting trends 20 years after democracy concludes this shows that:

… the accent of the ANC’s popularity, in relative terms, is shifting decisively towards rural areas.

Urban versus rural voters

State largesse comes in handy in rural areas because poverty levels are high. The ANC government’s social security system reached 16 million beneficiaries in 2014, up from three million in 1994. In the rural areas this matters more than intangible issues such as good governance.

And it is also not always easy for the opposition parties to optimise their electoral prospects in rural areas.

The DA has been running its campaign on the narrative:

Where we govern, we govern better.

But this message resonates largely with urban voters.

The EFF has been making inroads in informal settlements and rural areas but its strategic gaze appears more focused on three big metropole areas in Gauteng: Tshwane, Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni. The DA focus is similar, though in addition it is also eyeing Nelson Mandela Bay in the Eastern Cape.

These areas are where there was a dramatic decline in support for the ANC in the 2014 general elections. The metropolitan areas are strategically important in geoeconomic terms, especially in Gauteng. This is where political power is enhanced by economic power.

The EFF and DA see electoral opportunity in these areas. Will they succeed?

South Africa has eight major urban areas. Historically the ANC was popular in all, but it has seen its support cut dramatically in half. Following the 2011 municipal elections all these metropolitan areas, with the exception of Cape Town, came under the control of the ANC. It maintained the electoral hegemony achieved in 2006.

Comparatively, this is how the ANC fared in the major urban areas.

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The DA’s support in the urban areas has been growing consistently, but not to the extent of displacing the ANC’s electoral hegemony. This happened only in Cape Town, which has always been out of the ANC’s reach.

In relative terms, the support of the ANC in the rural areas was more than in the urban areas. The 2014 general election confirmed this with a further drop in the ANC’s urban support vis-à-vis its popularity in the countryside.

But the pattern is not uniform across the country.

In some provinces, such as Kwazulu-Natal, the ANC’s support went up in both rural as well as urban areas.

In the Eastern Cape the ANC had a good showing in the 2014 general elections, attracting just over 68% of the vote across the province. It performed badly in Nelson Mandela Bay, where it garnered less than 50% of the vote.

In Gauteng’s major metropolitan areas the ANC’s support declined by six percentage points compared with its performance in the 2011 municipal elections.

An urban/rural binary isn’t helpful

A more challenging question is: was the ANC ever an urban party? I deliberately ask this to caution against an urban-rural binary in the analysis of electoral trends since 1994.

The 2014 general elections indicate that its support declined significantly in four major metropolitan areas. Nevertheless, its electoral hegemony remained intact in the other four.

Where its support declined, the margin relative to that of the opposition parties did not create an immediate possibility of displacement. In some cases this was true even if the DA and EFF votes were combined.

So, is it becoming a rural party? Not necessarily. It is important to emphasise that the ANC “has historically been popular in both rural and urban areas”. Its presence in the urban areas is still strong, although not in the same way as it was in previous years. And in recent elections more of its support has been coming from the countryside.

The spatial dispersal of the ANC’s electoral support is patently shifting, and its support at the polls is declining. But its electoral hegemony remains intact largely because of the countryside vote.

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