South Africa’s latest round of municipal elections ostensibly marks a watershed in the country’s democratic development. The dominance of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has at last been seriously challenged, and the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) looks better placed than ever to mount a real electoral threat in the next presidential election in 2019.
The ANC has once again captured more than 50% of the vote, but it has nonetheless lost control of key urban areas, including Nelson Mandela Bay; at the time of writing, it was fighting to stay ahead in Tshwane (Pretoria) and Johannesburg.
This is certainly an important change, and an expression of anger and disappointment about Jacob Zuma’s tenure as president – but do they really break the mould of South Africa’s race-based post-liberation politics?
Zuma once declared that “the ANC will rule [South Africa] until Jesus comes back”. But many have long been concerned by South Africa’s “dominant party democracy”, with its implications for accountability, corruption and meaningful democratisation. And given the ANC’s dominance in much of the country since 1994, these results seem to indicate that things are changing.
They also vindicate the DA’s former leader Helen Zille, who pursued a strategy of expanding the DA’s traditional base beyond white and “coloured” (mixed-race) voters, and of gaining power in provinces and cities before targeting national government.
The exceptions are Cape Town and the Western Cape province, which Zille (herself white) and the DA have governed since 2006, either in alliance with smaller parties or with outright control – but again, these are areas with predominantly white and coloured populations. To expand its appeal, the DA has increasingly made an effort to elevate its non-white politicians to prominence. That effort culminated in 2014 when the Johannesburg-based black politican Mmusi Maimane, the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, succeeded Zille as party leader.
It isn’t surprising that black voters would tire of Zuma’s presidency and express their frustration at the polls. Things really began to slide when 34 mineworkers were shot dead at Marikana in 2012. And while Zuma won a large majority in the 2014 national elections, his tenure has long been blighted with scandal, bad policy, and declining public services. He was even booed and heckled at Mandela’s memorial service.
Decline and transformation
Basic service delivery has declined across the country. I lived in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape during the early 2000s, and returning in 2013, I saw it for myself. Rolling electricity blackouts and unsanitary and haphazard drinking water supplies had made everyday life difficult. This failure points to municipal maladministration by the ANC.
South African voters frustration is not just about service delivery; it is more an anger at the lack of meaningful socio-economic change over the last 22 years. This frustration does not necessarily find a long-term home or a solution with the DA, however. The white population continues to dominate the economy and key sectors of society. Demands for faster black economic empowerment and a more broad-based economy are often met by either blithe or aggressively racist responses from the white minority.
South Africa has one of the fastest-expanding black middle classes in the world, but it’s still a minority of the population – and that it exists at all arguably reflects the “crony capitalism” rewarding senior ANC supporters rather than any true opening-up of the system.
There are plenty of South Africans demanding faster racial transformation of society and the economy. Among them are Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, along with the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall protests, which sprung up at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and spread to campuses across the country.
Malema, a populist firebrand, is sharply critical of Mandela’s reconciliation nation building project that maintained the neo-liberal economic status quo and forgave the white community. Malema has called for the seizure of white-owned land and accuses the ANC of betraying the poor and cosying up to white capital. That his party has also done well in these elections is just as significant as the DA’s strong showing, and may well prove to be more so over time.
At UCT, black students were not just protesting against the astonishing presence of Cecil Rhodes’ statue on campus, but at the university’s failure to reflect the racial demography of South Africa, or to respond to the educational needs of a country at the tip of the continent. These same challenges constrain the DA across the country, and they’re a corrective to the idea that the latest election results are a true sea change for the party.
Cape Town and the Western Cape’s relatively sophisticated infrastructure, wealthy agricultural and tourist economy and comparatively large white population all mean the DA can easily present its tenure there as a success. These areas are far easier to manage than the Eastern Cape, with its destitute economy and neglected institutions, or the much larger city of Johannesburg, far messier and more demanding than Cape Town.
The DA has governed Cape Town as a “world city” and has invested in high-end infrastructure projects while gentrifying and glamorising the city centre and waterfront. And all the while, the city’s still serious problems with violence, unemployment and drug abuse have been largely concealed and contained in its outlying settlements and squatter camps.
I interviewed British-born white residents of the city for a book on the British in South Africa. The majority considered Cape Town to be a familiar and safe home, not quite part of the rest of Africa but rather “England by the Sea” as one put it. They strongly identified Zille and the DA as governing in their interests, as did the majority of white South African voters.
As have UCT administrators, the DA has generally been defensive when challenged about racial transformation. It falls back on a liberal discourse that assumes a belief in equality without actually making any significant or radical commitments in order to achieve it.
For South Africa to really change, white privilege needs to be challenged. It’s difficult to see how the DA can do that without losing its voters and its power base in the Western Cape, and its orthodox, neo-liberal bent means it can’t offer many South Africans a meaningful and radical alternative.
Yes, the latest results are a significant moment in the electorate’s disillusionment with and hostility towards the Zuma administration and the ANC, but they do not mean South African politics has suddenly been transformed.