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South Africa’s local elections: new entrants likely to be the big winners

An election poster shows a man campagning to be the new mayor of Cape Town wearing boxing gloves
Election posters on street poles in Cape Town. The top one in Afrikaans says ‘Cape Town Works. Let’s do more’. EFE-EPA/Nic Bothma

Though a ritual, elections yield new insights about the state of the citizenry and the political elite. Life changes, either for the better or worse. Electoral outcomes are a statement about how citizens feel at that moment and signal their inclination to take charge of their future.

The level of turnout and the political choices voters make indicate whether citizens have resigned themselves to their problems, or are actively seeking solutions. And the 2021 local government elections in South Africa are certainly more about the citizenry than about the political elite.

Municipalities are in a shambolic state, and have been for a while. The auditor-general’s latest assessment report reads:

Most municipalities are in a worse position than at the beginning of this administration’s term in 2016-17.

It was always expected that some municipalities in rural and small towns would be worse off than others. Their revenue base is small and thus cannot meet all their needs. But grants from the fiscus are available to cater for new infrastructure and free services for the indigent.

The root causes of the deterioration are not structural and beyond their control. They are man-made. Most hardly spend their grants in full. What they certainly excel in is paying salaries, including paying for overtime that can hardly be proven or justified. This happens even at the expense of paying major service suppliers such as Eskom, the power utility. The consequence is lack of both power and new infrastructure, while the existing infrastructure degenerates. And the repercussions don’t end there. Even the self-generated revenue becomes threatened.

Failing municipalities

Just this past June, Clover, the cheese making company, closed its largest factory at Lichtenburg, North West province. Clover explained the decision to relocate:

For years the Lichtenburg factory has been experiencing water and power outages and the surrounding infrastructure has not been maintained by the municipality. Despite numerous efforts to engage the municipality on these matters, the issues have not been resolved.

This means loss of jobs and revenue for the Ditsobotla Municipality. Because existing infrastructure is maintained from self-generated revenue, the capacity of the municipality to fulfil this task is eroded even further. This is a common story in most towns. It’s a vicious cycle.

Read more: Small towns are collapsing across South Africa. How it's starting to affect farming

A deteriorating quality of life, however, doesn’t necessarily translate into loss of interest in voting. Turnout at the last election in 2016 was highest, at 58%. Though a minor improvement from the 57.11% in 2011, it sustained an upward movement that started in 2011.

That 57.11% turnout represented a whopping jump of 9% from the previous two elections. Admittedly, the level of voter registration in this election – at 65% of eligible voters, compared to 75% in 2016 – is worrisome. It also hasn’t helped that the campaign period was shortened. But the compressed campaign period due to COVID-19 doesn’t seem to have translated into less visibility. Instead, parties seem to have been campaigning almost every day since the start of this month.

Besides the energised campaigns, the staggering growth in number and range of candidates and parties may just improve turnout. The number of parties contesting this election has risen from 205 in 2016 to 325. The number of independents has also almost doubled to 1,546 from the previous election.

The Ramaphosa factor

New contestants may entice new voters to the polls. The prospects of independents winning are much higher this time than previously, when they hardly registered a dent. Their relative failure has been due to lack of support, both organisationally and financially. Now they seem to have both, including training on electioneering, provided by the One SA Movement of Mmusi Maimane, former leader of the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance. Maimane’s organisation accounts for over 300 of independents.

Independents obviously hope to capitalise on the widespread distrust of political parties. The governing African National Congress (ANC) has been most affected by the lack of trust in parties. This is a hangover from the Jacob Zuma years.

The ANC shielded him despite his many misdemeanours and were eventually forced by popular disquiet to let him go.

Read more: Municipalities can play a key role in South Africa's economic development. Here's how

Fortunately for the party, its current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has a better approval rating than the organisation. This explains why the party wasn’t keen, this time, to announce mayoral candidates. In the last election, mayoral candidates were announced in advance partly to make up for Zuma’s unpopularity. Mayoral candidates became the face of the party in their localities. Now Ramaphosa’s face is the only one on the party’s posters and T-shirts.

Whether Ramaphosa’s approval rating rubs off on the party remains to be seen. He was able to improve his party’s fortunes in the 2019 national election up to 57%, from the 54% it had gained in the 2016 local election. Previous electoral trends had shown that national and election results were not too dissimilar from each other. Thus the 57% tally the ANC got in 2019 was an improvement.

Times have changed, however. Coming so soon after Zuma’s removal, Ramaphosa’s approval ratings had a lot to do with a sense of relief and his uplifting message of renewal. Changes that quickly followed, especially new appointments in state institutions, uplifted the public mood and created a sense of optimism. Reforms, however, have not been consistent or felt throughout government. Revelations of corruption by Ramaphosa’s own high-ranking allies, such as Zweli Mkhize and Oscar Mabuyane, create some doubt that he is succeeding in instilling ethical leadership in his party.

Read more: Water, power cuts and neglect are taking their toll on South Africa's top hospitals

What complicates Ramaphosa’s mission even more is the dearth of ethical leaders within the ANC in various municipalities. In this past financial year alone, the auditor-general tells us that officials, politicians and their families secured contracts worth close to R2 billion (US$132 million).

They rigged the process to benefit themselves, which explains why the Enoch Mgijima municipality can unveil an open patch of ground pretending to be a stadium worth R15 million (about US$1 million). Ramaphosa’s message of a renewed ANC doesn’t resonate with local experience, nor is it reflected in the calibre of leaders at the local level. Even the respected former deputy president of the ANC, Kgalema Motlanthe, had a tough time ensuring that suitable candidates were selected. Rigging, disruption and violent killings marred the party’s selection process. These are hardly signs of a renewed party that inspires optimism.

What to expect

But the ANC has nothing to fear from its biggest rival, the Democratic Alliance (DA). The official opposition is re-consolidating as a party of minorities and conservative voters. This was affirmed just recently when it issued racially insensitive posters, and its leader appeared to approve of a radio host’s dismissal of a black woman’s experience of racism.

Julius Malema, leader of the third largest party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), benefits from “white denialism”. It fans bitterness at the failures of the post-apartheid settlement, which the party offers to assuage by “cutting the throat of whiteness”. But the party’s limited appeal to youth (under 30 years old), which is a marginal segment of registered voters at roughly 15%, restrains its growth.

This election is likely to yield diverse winners, rather than enable one party to gain in any significant way. New entrants are likely to be the big winners. Though some may be motivated by financial benefits, the increased and diverse number of contestants shows a citizenry that is unwilling to leave its fate in the hands of ineffective incumbents. Voters will most likely take advantage of the wider choice of parties as they explore different remedies to their hardships.

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