Johannesburg - The local government elections on November 1 will be unlike any this country has ever seen. They are, said radio host Stephen Grootes this week, elections that none of the big parties wanted to have.
“Problems are piling up, people are poorer and angrier than before,” he said, hosting ‘Navigating the Elections’, the final instalment of the Great Debate series of webinars hosted by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies which began earlier this month. He was joined by political analysts Dr Ralph Mathekga, Dr Nompumelelo Runji and Wayne Sussman
The elections, Grootes said, could be an inflection point for South African politics, an end to big-party dominance and the emergence of smaller parties all forcing coalition governments. The problem, Runji said, was the political parties mirrored South Africa’s racialised inequality. While much had been done to increase the representativity of the top 10% of the population, the bottom 50% were key to winning the election and parties would be playing to that. What was worrying, said Mathekga, was that none of the parties seemed to have a view of what they would do after the election, each one seemed happy to hold on to what they had.
“The ANC is held back by its history, its campaign is an article of faith, asking people to trust the devil they know. If this election was about service delivery, the DA would be in the clear, but they’ve gone out of their way to be controversial. The EFF will be shocked if they wake up after November 1 with a council (that they have won),” he said.
None of the parties, with the exception of the IFP and the Freedom Front Plus, appeared to have any momentum, Sussman said. “The ANC had tremendous momentum in the by-elections earlier this year,” he said, which would normally be an indicator of public sentiment, “but that was before the insurrection in July. It’s a unique situation, but it’s also astonishing how competitive the playing field is in these elections.”
The key issue concerning voters in this election, said Grootes, was the state of municipal services across the country. How did things get so bad? he asked. For Runji, it is about the skills mismatch in the administration and management municipalities, undoing the early wins of service delivery, where there are now taps and pipes in places where there were none, but no water. There’s no accountability nor consequences. Problems, she said, needed to be reported and acted upon immediately, not discovered in official audit reports months afterwards. The ANC’s culture of collective responsibility meant that it was difficult to discipline and dismiss underperforming officials. Councils were failing their oversight functions too.
Was this because of a skills mismatch or party dynamics, where becoming a councillor was the ticket to a middle-class lifestyle for the next five years, in a sea of poverty and hopelessness? she asked. Mathekga said local government had democratised corruption and because of that there was no chance of any renewal within the ANC. The party had adopted the slogan in response to the real anger of its members, but no longer had control of local structures, which many in senior roles in the party depended on for their own existence. In fact, he said, the Boko Haram protection racket threatening the ANC’s election chances in the Tshwane metro, according to ANC elections head Fikile Mbalula, were just as entrenched in Diepsloot, north of Johannesburg.
“You are better off going to the big man to get your documents certified than to the police station. The state is receding. The shocking thing of all is that the party is admitting this. The protection racket is a threat to the state, but it comes out of inefficiency.”
Runji said there were many signs that the ANC was in disarray, starting with its inability to register candidates with the ANC, as a result of the internal conflict between factions. Whether this would prove fatal in the polls, said Sussman, depended on the differential turnout, especially if it followed the 2016 pattern with the DA members coming out in force and the ANC members being subdued.
“To use a rugby analogy, the DA have the try line in front of them, but they keep knocking the ball on (and losing possession). They’ll be fine in Cape Town,” he said. Mathekga said the DA appeared to have given up its wooing of the majority vote, especially in Gauteng, following the departure of senior leaders like Mmusi Maimane, Herman Mashaba and John Moody. Runji agreed, saying the DA seemed keener on retaining its traditional voters. The EFF, said Mathekga, would surprise many people by its success in forgotten, neglected little towns, but both the DA and the ANC would be wary of entering into coalitions with it.
The problem with coalition governments Runji said, was once again due to South Africa’s racial and class splits, meaning it was difficult to prioritise the needs of differing groups of residents against a backdrop of competing political egos and ideologies. The EFF’s approach to coalitions after 2016, had been bizarre, she said. “This is why it is unlikely to see the EFF playing the role of kingmaker after November 1.”
Disillusion with political parties wasn’t limited to voters, said Sussman, South Africa had the unique phenomenon of sitting DA, EFF and ANC councillors in Sasolburg all standing as independent candidates on November 1, while the number of independent candidates in Rustenburg as one example had jumped from five in 2016 to 32 this time. “The (independents) will definitely do better, but it’s hard for them to influence councils like metros, Nelson Mandela Bay notwithstanding.”
Sussman didn’t see the inability to form working coalitions being a problem in a metro like Johannesburg, but he believed there could be chaos in Tshwane after November 1, if a minority government could not pass a municipal budget forcing the national government to step in and place it under administration. “It will happen in other municipalities too, which is what makes this election so fascinating.”
He can’t see Herman Mashaba’s Action SA making much of a difference in Tshwane because of the presence of the big four: ANC, EFF, DA and FF Plus there.
Sussman said Mashaba had chosen to contest three metros in Gauteng and three in KZN, which was unusual since most political parties made their debut nationally rather than choosing to do so regionally.
“Johannesburg is where he has most recognition, but if he fails to become a person of consequence in November (as mayor or kingmaker), his political career will be short-lived.”