Does the outcome of the 2016 Local Government Elections indicate a major shift in South African politics?
The recent local government elections have been described as a ‘watershed election’ as the ANC lost control of some of the key metropolitan municipalities to opposition parties and a number of coalition governments at municipal governance level. In order to explore the meaning and significance of that election for our long-term political direction, PACSA, in collaboration with the Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office, hosted a roundtable discussion on whether the outcomes of the elections indicate a re-alignment of political forces in South Africa?
Dr Lubna Nadvi and Mr. Ralph Mathekga, both well-known political analysts, provided their perspectives on the meaning we can draw from the election outcome. Both speakers agreed that the political terrain has become more fluid and that urban voters have become more skeptical of the ANC’s ability to reform itself and provide the necessary services required by a growing urban population.
The ‘real news’ of the elections was not so much the growth of support for opposition parties but rather the political sophistication shown by a large body of Black voters who tactically stayed away from the polls and thus handed the opposition a victory rather than vote for the opposition parties. This means that a large number of erstwhile ANC supporters find themselves in a ‘political transit lounge’ waiting to see whether the ANC, at a national and provincial level, will reform and put the interest of the country before that of the party. How these voters judge what transpires in the ANC over the next year or two could significantly impact on the ANC’s ability to hold onto power in 2019. In this sense it is difficult to predict how the 2019 national elections could go because it depends, in large measure, how those who stayed away from the polls in 2016 vote.
It is clear that the local government elections was a national referendum on the scandals surrounding the president, especially the Nkandla issue; patronage and perceptions of a growing culture of corruption. These are contributing to declining legitimacy for the ANC. The elections also revealed a strong protest by citizens, whether they stayed away from the polls or voted for opposition parties.
The discussions also surfaced the possibility that real politics has shifted from the political parties to societal movements. One such example was the #FeesMustFall movement which started on university campuses and dominating our political discourse. This movement captured the frustration of the youth and carries within it a desire for alternative forms of democracy; an economic policy that takes redistribution seriously; and questioning the value of institutions to take transformation of our society forward. These movements provide opportunities to strengthen civil society voice and action.
An important outcome of the elections is also the growing strength of the South African electoral system. That the ANC accepted defeat and was prepared to go into opposition in these economic powerful cities such as Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay is not insignificant for the democratic project. In this sense the 2016 elections provides us with a process for a hand-over of power, at a local government level, of what could be achieved at a national level.