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In South Africa, a Bruising Local Election Defeat Chastens the ANC

James Hamill -

For South Africa’s long-ruling African National Congress party, the outcome of local elections on Nov. 1 was a predictable disaster. The polls took place against a troubled backdrop for the ANC, which has struggled through a perfect storm of challenges and missteps this year: a lack of tangible economic progress, poor public service delivery, chronic power shortages, the worst violent unrest since 1994 and seemingly endless allegations of corruption—all unfolding amid a global pandemic that caused South Africa’s largest economic contraction in a century. All of this virtually guaranteed the party would face a backlash at the ballot box.

When the votes were tallied, the ANC’s vote share had fallen to 45.6 percent, its lowest in any South African election of the democratic era and 8 points down from the 54 percent share it took in the 2016 local elections, which was considered a major disappointment at the time. The ANC lost over 600 municipal council seats as the party saw its support decline across all nine provinces. It secured outright majorities in only two of the country’s eight biggest cities, meaning the once-dominant ANC will now have to accept coalition government as the new normal in many parts of the country.

Some of the party’s most serious losses came in South Africa’s two most populous provinces of Gauteng—where the ANC took only 36 percent—and Kwazulu-Natal. The hemorrhaging of votes in these two provinces is a particularly bad omen for the ANC ahead of the 2024 general election, raising the prospect of the party slipping below 50 percent in a national poll for the first time.

Simply put, this was the most ineffectual ANC campaign of the democratic era, relying almost exclusively on President Cyril Ramaphosa’s message that he was cleaning up the ruling party, coupled with a plea for one more chance to fix a state of affairs that had become hopelessly broken on the ANC’s watch. Rather than allow the ruling party yet another chance to fix its own mess, most voters preferred to cast ballots—or, in substantial numbers, abstain from participating—on the basis of their lived reality rather than that of the ANC leadership’s imagination.

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Turnout was dismal, at 46 percent, suggesting that the poor outcome for the ANC was principally due to its supporters staying away rather than voting against it. The party’s one saving grace may have been that its largest opponents failed to capitalize on its decline, as smaller parties like the recently launched ActionSA, the right-wing Freedom Front Plus and the KwaZulu-Natal-based Inkatha Freedom Party saw the biggest gains. The main opposition Democratic Alliance took 21.6 percent of the vote, down from nearly 27 percent in 2016, while the populist Economic Freedom Fighters saw a small increase in support to 10.3 percent, up from 8.2 percent five years ago. If the major opposition parties like the DA and EFF are unable to score a breakthrough under these highly favorable circumstances, it is reasonable to ask if they will ever be able to do so.

Still, the key takeaway from these polls is that the ANC is now in terminal decline as South Africa’s dominant party, even if its demise may be a protracted affair. It is not clear what, if anything, the ANC can do to reverse the downward spiral that it has been stuck in for more than a decade, as it is underpinned by structural factors like urbanization, generational change and widespread fatigue with the ANC’s political culture of liberation. This is actually a normal and healthy process, as South Africa is too complex—with too many diverse constituencies and power centers—to be represented by a single hegemonic party. Ramaphosa acknowledged as much in his post-election remarks when, speaking as head of state rather than head of the ANC, he called the elections “another milestone in the advance of our democracy” and “a sign that multiparty politics is flourishing in South Africa.”

The key takeaway from these polls is that the ANC is now in terminal decline as South Africa’s dominant party, even if its demise may be a protracted affair.

Indeed, the party of Mandela no longer dominates South African intellectual discourse as it once did. In fact, it appears increasingly bereft of ideas, instead becoming synonymous with corruption, cronyism and dysfunctional governance. Voters, no longer automatically driven by historic loyalties, are prioritizing competence and public service delivery. They are increasingly prepared to punish the ANC, repudiating the ruling party faithful’s idea that they have a guaranteed lock on the Black vote.

Nor is the ANC likely to find salvation in Ramaphosa’s project of reforming the party and the state. Although his intent is noble, the project is floundering because it is built on the flawed premise that the ANC is reformable and can become an instrument of effective governance, even in the face of a mountain of evidence to the contrary. Even in its heyday, between 1994 and 2004, the party was at best an unwieldy, lumbering instrument of government. As the South African journalist and radio presenter Stephen Grootes put it, “The ANC of today is a patchwork of warring factions,” incapable of uniting around anything but the vaguest ideals.

Ramaphosa’s opponents in the ANC’s so-called Radical Economic Transformation camp, loyal to the scandal-plagued former President Jacob Zuma and the party’s now-suspended secretary-general, Ace Magashule, have welcomed the results as a stick with which to beat him. The RET faction’s supporters point to the fact that Ramaphosa has now led the ANC to two inglorious firsts: he is the only leader to take the party below 60 percent in a national election and below 50 percent in local polls. In doing so, they deliberately ignore opinion polls suggesting that Ramaphosa is significantly more popular than his party, and that without him, the ANC’s numbers would almost certainly be much worse. They also ignore their own culpability in the ANC’s slow-motion demise.

The RET grouping may not have the strength—or a viable candidate—to unseat Ramaphosa as party leader at the ANC conference in 2022, but they will have sufficient leverage at various levels of the party to keep stirring the pots of internal dissent, thereby frustrating reform efforts. The disappointing election results will have created a groundswell of grassroots discontent that they can tap into.

Ramaphosa is by nature a consensus-seeker, but should he continue to prioritize party unity and stop short of completely destroying the RET grouping and the venal culture it embodies, he will destroy any prospect of success for his own reform process. Behind the RET’s smokescreen of militant rhetoric, kleptocrats like Zuma and Magashule view Ramaphosa’s desire to build a clean and capable state as an existential threat to their own material interests, for which the ANC serves as a convenient vehicle. The irony here is that the RET faction does not want unity: They seek to oust Ramaphosa from power and retake control of the party, meaning his calls for unity will not be reciprocated.

Seeking party unity with such elements on one hand, and the renewal of effective governance on the other, are fundamentally incompatible objectives. As long as Ramaphosa fails to acknowledge this contradiction, the ANC will continue in its tailspin. Ultimately, this will be a blessing for South Africa, as the movement has become intellectually and morally depleted, and the country desperately needs political realignment. But in the short to medium term, it will make for greater turbulence, a stagnant economy and the potential for things to get quite ugly.
James Hamill has been a lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Leicester since 1991. He has a long-standing research interest in South African politics, particularly in the country’s post-apartheid development, and is a frequent visitor to the country. He has published articles on South Africa in International Relations, Diplomacy & Statecraft, The World Today, Politikon: The South African Journal of Political Studies and The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.

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