South Africa: ANC suffers in local elections, but left scores low

August 23, 2016

Economic Freedom Fighters' members.

After the August 3 local government elections, it is not just the ruling ANC that is licking its wounds. The left also has very little to celebrate, outside of the consolidation of the anti-neoliberal Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) as the third biggest party in the country.

Even so, the EEF's increased share of the vote from the 2014 national elections. where it obtained just over 6% to its current performance of 8.2%, is a lot less than expected.

Parties supporting neoliberal policies secured at least a combined 85% of the vote, even if those voting for the ANC, the opposition Democratic Alliance and Inkatha Freedom Party are not always aware of their parties' neoliberal orientation.

Socialist parties and the various affiliates of the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (NUMSA) supported United Front, which obtained less than 20,000 votes.

ANC decline

Regardless of how poorly different fragments of the left performed, the big story of the elections is the relatively poor performance of the ANC Alliance.

Normally the elections should have taken place in April or May of this year, but they were postponed till August. The poor showing of the ANC would probably have been even worse had the elections taken place in the midst of the corruption and constitutional controversies that raged around the Jacob Zuma presidency earlier in the year.

These local government elections should lead to some serious soul searching by ANC leaders in light of their worst electoral showing since 1994, despite a campaign costing more than R1 billion. The ANC obtained only 54% of the vote, compared with 63% in 2011.

The ANC has lost ground in several of the big metros including Nelson Mandela Bay and Tshwane, where the neoliberal DA will likely take over. Its support has fallen below 50% in several big metros, including Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni.

This is not a small issue for a party that has long existed on its capacity to dispense patronage and largesse.

It is clear that for the ANC the election results will have significant ramifications and widen tensions within the organisation. With the ANC Conference set for next year, the blame game will drive wedges between the leaders at all levels of the party.

It is likely the Zuma leadership will not allow a wide-ranging assessment and introspection on the results, lest it strengthens calls for him to go. However, such an introspection is needed if the ANC stands any chance of renewing itself and restoring its legitimacy and former hegemony.

However, it is important to caution commentators already writing the ANC's obituary and the end of its dominance of electoral politics. This is premature.

What is already clear is that even though the elections confirm the trend of declining ANC support, this time around its poor showing is less a result of its supporters deserting it for an alternative, but rather just not coming out to vote. Among ANC supporters there is deep disillusionment.

This contrasts with the DA's better showing, which was a result of its greater ability to bring out its supporters to vote and to some extent breaking into new areas. However, an initial analysis of the vote indicates the DA's growth in so-called African townships is still quite modest.

DA advances

The DA and the EFF were the main beneficiaries of the falling support for the ANC. The DA increased its vote by nearly 1 million, up from 24% of the vote to 27%.

This contradicts the idea of an electoral ceiling beyond which the DA cannot grow. It is also clear that the DA won ground in several Black townships.

The EFF received just over 1.2 million votes. Winning more than 8% of the vote, it has consolidated as the third-largest party in the country.

The outcome of the election has placed the EFF in a stronger position than its electoral showing indicates. It is positioned as potential king-maker in several hung municipalities, not least the Nelson Mandela Bay, Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni and Tshwane metros.

But the EFF only increased its vote from the 2014 national election by just over 100,000. Since then, the EFF has been building structures and profiling itself. Nevertheless, we should not underestimate the significance for the left of its electoral showing.

The 1.2 million votes for the EFF must be seen as a vote for a radical political alternative to the ANC and DA. It provides a foundation for growing a left electoral base.

How this unfolds will depend on how the EFF approaches the issue of coalitions. Should it enter into alliances with the DA against the ANC, it is likely to lose support among radical layers.

In some ways the EFF has boxed itself into a corner with respect to publicly rejecting alliances with the ANC. For example, forming a coalition with the ANC in Gauteng may help drive a wider wedge between the Gauteng ANC and Zuma — and bring closer the EFF's major campaign to chase Zuma from power.

Outside of a few specific cases, local associations and independents did poorly as the electorate responded more to national issues than to specific local concerns. The left outside of the Alliance and the EFF went into the elections disorganised and with no unified perspective.

The NUMSA-backed United Front had decided not to stand in the elections. Nevertheless several affiliates registered either in the name of the United Front or under their own banner. In general, these groups did poorly and were not able to gain traction with voters.

Nevertheless, there are some important exceptions. The Sterkspruit Civic Association obtained 23% of the vote and was second to the ANC in the Senqu municipality.

In Plettenberg Bay, the Active United Front is the kingmaker in the Bitou Municipality even though it has just one seat, after the DA and ANC each obtained 6 seats. The United Front of the Eastern Cape obtained 7248 ward votes and gained one seat in the Nelson Mandela Bay metro.


Clearly, the ANC is going to have to do a lot of soul searching if it is going to reverse the steady slide in support. Its 2017 conference is going to have to be a conference of renewal.

But similarly, the left in this country is in desperate need of new ideas that go beyond the trotting out of outmoded dogma. The rise of the EFF should offer some inspiration, but simply clutching at the coat tails of the EFF will not cut it.

Firstly, it is not certain that the EFF will be able to keep things together now that it has to manage the complexity of local government and 761 councillors, many of whom are young and politically inexperienced.

Secondly, there is a strong danger that the EFF will slip into parliamentarism — forgetting that the life-blood of a left party lies in the struggles and campaigns of the wretched of the earth. A new left, anti-authoritarian, democratic and emancipatory politics would be good for the EFF in countering its commandism and tendency to statism.

Hopefully, the local government elections will be a wake-up call for those who believe another South Africa is not just possible, but urgent.

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