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Electoral tremors are shaking South Africa’s ANC. How will it respond?

Supporters of South Africa’s governing ANC with a mock coffin of the opposition EFF at the ANC’s Siyanqoba rally ahead of local elections. Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

South Africa’s election 2016 local election signals change. For the first time in the country’s democratic era since 1994, in this tenth major electoral event, the governing ANC is facing the prospects of losing its dominance in several strategically important centres.

This occurrence – irrespective of whether the ANC loses or hangs on by the skin of its teeth – will confront it with a crucial choice: does the former juggernaut change tack, in humility, to acknowledge and correct the problems that have caused the decline? Or does it march on, relying on leadership that has failed it, and use more state resources to compensate for its lapses, pretending that the ANC of 2016 is the political movement of 1994?

The threat of losing enclaves of valued power is continuous. The advance is quite subtle, yet relentless. There are no tsunamis, for now, but two tectonic plates of political change are moving past each other, causing electoral tremors.

Struggle credentials v good governance

The one plate represents the strong link between the ANC, the struggle against apartheid, and liberation consciousness. The other reflects eroded trust in the ANC and its government and the recognition that, despite its liberation roots, the ANC is facing post-liberation demands for accountability. The ANC of 2016 has ceased being an untouchable liberation movement turned political party. Voters are judging it increasingly on its modern status and sojourn in government.

The ANC has faced an inexorable, gradual decline since 2004 - first at national-provincial levels and in 2006 at local level. There is no evidence that the party has been able to reverse the declining trends. Should this continue it will be under definitive opposition siege in just over a decade.

The incremental pace of electoral change is now reaching new benchmarks. The ANC risks losing its outright majorities in the metropolitan heartland of Gauteng (Tshwane and Johannesburg) and the Eastern Cape, besides ceding power in some smaller municipalities. It will emerge as a more vulnerable organisation whether it wins, loses or hangs on to power through multi-party coalitions.

There are, nevertheless, no guarantees that the post-election ANC will be more accountable, more truthful about its leadership and organisational caveats, more forthcoming about its faction-wide capture of state resources, less dependent on public information apparatuses, and more accountable to the voters.

Despite change being in the air, the denouement of the story of the ANC and local elections 2016 remains ambiguous. Three sets of changes in the campaign period are the best available indicators of the road ahead. These are:

  • the ANC’s internal organisational trauma,

  • its hate relationship with opposition parties, and

  • its habit of drawing on the state and its resources during the campaign.

Behemoth in decline

The ANC is not in a growth phase. For the last decade its trajectory has been downhill. Apart from growth trends in KwaZulu-Natal in the past decade (and this has stopped too) or in select by-elections or municipalities, the ANC has not gained support in a long electoral time.

And its pace of decline might accelerate this time around given that it is fending off assaults on more fronts than ever before from, for example, the Democratic Alliance (DA), Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and independents.

There have been times of electoral uncertainty in South Africa before. In the Western Cape the ANC ceded power after the new DA took shape. The difference is that on that occasion the ANC was not losing power that it had systematically built. Rather, the shift in power was driven by the fact that the National Party’s support base realigned itself with the then Democratic Party (now the DA).

In KwaZulu-Natal electoral change came in the form of the ANC gradually capturing the Inkatha Freedom Party support base.

Circa 2016 therefore is a new game for the ANC. It is the first time it risks losing methodically acquired, treasured majorities. The vehemence of its “fightback” against the DA highlights the ANC’s disbelief that black (in the sense of black-African) voters could possibly discard it for the DA, or for the EFF, in scale-tipping numbers.

In the best of election result scenarios the ANC might (only just) escape coalition governments with its nemeses. The ANC is, however, readying itself for coalition governance. ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe confirms that leadership at all levels will assist if negotiations to constitute municipal coalitions become necessary.

Debilitating factionalism

In perhaps the most debilitating of all of its battles, the ANC is fighting against itself. Public rioting in Tshwane and multiple killings of candidates and rival politicians have captured much of 2016’s electoral terrain. The ANC conducted a de facto pre-election election in Tshwane in which local factions within the broader Zuma faction embarked on an internal war to secure privileged positions and benefits.

In Cape Town one ANC Khayelitsha ward-level nomination rebellion brought a major freeway to a standstill. In KwaZulu-Natal a regional-level challenge to a provincial conference result (which in turn has had an impact on local nominations) threatens to uproot the provincial government.

ANC branch nomination wars at multiple sites, and notably in KwaZulu-Natal’s Ethekwini in particular and the Northwest, unleashed a new phalanx of independent candidates who are splitting the ANC vote. The recent violent revolt over ward demarcation in Vuwani revealed a case of ANC factions battling for domination over a rearranged, emerging local state. Many of these internal battles have a bearing precisely on efforts to capture opportunities and benefits from ANC-controlled councils.

Managing coalitions

This raises the question more broadly of how the ANC in coalition with opposition parties might react to cooperative governance and sharing of state power. Would the ANC in government try to co-opt opposition parties into sharing the spoils of power? Would it work to hoodwink new partners into ensuring the ANC has power, but not giving them access to the spoils of power? Would king-making opposition parties be slaves of power-hungry factions?

Coalition governance is just one instance of post-election power politics. Across the board, the bound-to-be more vulnerable ANC has stark choices to make. There is the option of being truly humble again, listening to people and voters, and finding a way to return to those good roots that were at the base of the election campaign messages.

Alternatively, it can chose to bamboozle alliance partners, or use state power to further extremes to launch a campaign for the 2019 national-provincial elections from the base of continuous access to local state power.

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