South Africans – at least, the party-political ones – are facing the future with a large degree of consternation since the results of the local government elections were released.
With 42m South Africans eligible to vote and 26m registered these are the key considerations:
- There was a low turnout of 46% of registered voters. That is not unusual in local government elections. What was different is that only a third of those eligible to vote did so.
- As was noted, this represents a major shift away from electoral democracy as a form of expression. From the floor, Ayanda Ntsaluba drew attention to the fact that even when disgruntled with the ANC, its members could not bring themselves to vote for another party, instead staying away altogether.
- For the first time since the dawn of our democracy, the ANC failed to achieve 50% of the vote. The existential reality the ANC has to face is that one-seventh of those eligible to vote voted for them party.
- It is encouraging that unlike many parties of liberation, the ANC accepted this outcome with grace. The poor showing will, however, be a point of reference when the ANC holds its elective conference, expected next year and the many parts of the organisation contest power.
- The number of hung municipalities doubled to 66. These include the major centres of Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni, City of Tshwane and eThekwini. Coalitions must be formed. The first indications of how that progresses did not inspire confidence.
The results should be a trigger for reflection for all established parties – not only the ANC, but also for the DA which haemorrhaged votes, and the EFF which lost presence in some critical heartlands. The voters have expressed a general disillusion about formal politics (“my vote doesn’t matter / nothing will change”) and frustration at there being no credible parties (“there’s no one to vote for”).
Jobs were lost and patronage networks disrupted, which will impact the influence and control of all parties over their members.
There is also a very clear message in the popularity of newcomer Action SA, which took 16% of the Johannesburg vote. It is noteworthy that Action SA ate into both the ANC township vote and the DA suburban vote. This is a first in our democratic era, and it shows there is room for a viable alternative party.
Another indicator of public sentiment lay in the success of civic movements such as MAP16, led by 16 councillors who were fired from the ANC in 2018 for opposing and exposing corruption in troubled Maluti-A-Phofung. MAP16 won 20 seats; the ANC lost 40% of its seats in this district. This is a demonstration of democracy in action and the power of people who have simply had enough of municipal mismanagement and graft.
How the parties think about, form and manage coalitions is now top of mind, especially for those whose day-to-day existence will be coloured by the success or otherwise of a coalition government. Historically, South African parties have not built coalitions well; considerations of short-term power and patronage have tended to outweigh service-centricity. The first statements from all three of the dominant parties seem to indicate this will continue at the expense of citizens.
The profound hope expressed through the Dialogue was that political leadership could stretch and deliver efficient coalitions. This was, however, accompanied by scepticism about whether there is either political sophistication or competence to do so.
The trajectory has been set for the anticipated 2022 ANC elective conference and the 2024 national elections. We’ve seen the end of hegemonic power and a breaking up of the political landscape. “It will take enormous maturity to navigate a new landscape, and I’m not sure that maturity exists in the political parties,” “so I’m looking forward to seeing how civil society steps up and steps in.”
We have an overwhelming tendency to focus on the winning of political power and not on the purposeful wielding of that power to the benefit of the country and its people. None of the three leading parties campaigned on solutions and re-assessments of our trajectory. In fact, hidden in the noise is a scary similarity in ideology and economic theory. An absence of systems thinking and evidence that the downward spiral, psychological, social or economic, can be arrested was evident in all their campaigns.
The future we build depends on having competent government, civil society and business leaders at the table. Leadership that is capable of thinking through the systems that have failed and designing new ones that will pull us out of the dispiriting mess we are currently in.
To begin we have to build a strong civil society – business alliance that holds politicians accountable.
ALI Fellows can and do have a role in this endeavour!