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O n 1 November, South Africans will go to the polls to cast their ballots and decide the fate of 257 municipalities. 26 333 353 voters, of which 55% are women, are eligible to vote in the upcoming local government elections. Notably, roughly one in three eligible voters – 13 million people – did not register. This points to growing disillusionment with the political process and declining confidence in the ability of political institutions and parties to address the most pressing concerns facing South Africans. The hot button issues remain the same – poor service delivery, maladministration, corruption, violent crime and limited employment opportunities. Each party has put forward their proposed solutions and rolled out their election manifestos in door-to-door, traditional and increasingly sophisticated social media campaigns.

Recent political and economic developments make this a bellwether election. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) and opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) and Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) are facing internal and external challenges that will present an opportunity for smaller parties to break through as alternative choices. We expect voter apathy to negatively impact voter turnout these three parties, thereby creating more coalition governments and exacerbating political instability at a municipal level and heightening sovereign risk.

Unlearnt lessons

The ANC was humbled in 2016 when it lost control of the Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay. Gone was the hubris typified in the oft repeated quote that the ANC would “rule until Jesus comes back.” It seems that the ANC missed the memo about the second coming in the run-up to the 2016 local government election. The reality that the ANC had taken its traditional voting base for granted dawned five years ago and was confirmed in 2019 when the ANC won the majority of parliamentary seats by the smallest margin since the introduction of democracy in 1994. After two and a half years of limited progress in addressing the most pressing issues to voters, a global pandemic, and politically triggered and criminally motivated looting and violence in July, the ANC is once again asking its base to put their trust in the ruling party once more.

In the mid-2000s, the DA leadership proactively took steps to capture a larger share of the vote. South Africa’s demographic composition dictates that if a party wants to gain power – at a national or local government level – it needs a significant number of votes from black South Africans. The DA’s successive inability to integrate and work with prominent South African politicians able to mobilise new support – Patricia De Lille, Mamphele Ramphele, Lindiwe Mazibuko, Gen Holomisa, Chief Dalindyebo, John Moodey, Herman Mashaba, Mmusi Maimane – and tone-deaf stance on redressing historical injustices has damaged the party’s credibility as a viable alternative to the ANC except in some white and coloured segments of the electorate.  The party’s highly controversial posters in Phoenix, KwaZulu Natal, which stated “The ANC called you racists … The DA calls you heroes” coupled with a DA leader John Steenhuisen’s criticised participation on a panel discussion about service delivery has undermined confidence in the party’s ability to be chosen by the people, to govern for all people.

King for a day

Recent shifts in the political landscape have set the scene for a contentious election that will likely see smaller parties and independent candidates gaining ground at the expense of the ANC and DA. South African has a proportional representative system. The councils of metropolitan and local municipalities are elected through a system of mixed-member proportional representation, in which half of the seats in each municipality are elected on the first-past-the-post system in single-member wards and the other half of the seats are allocated according to the proportional representation system. The latter ensures that the final number of seats held by every party is proportional to its percentage of the total vote. 

District municipality councils are partly elected by proportional representation and partly appointed by the councils of the constituent local municipalities. Voters in metropolitan and local municipalities elect a single ward candidate, as well as a proportional representative in their municipal council. Residents of municipalities that form part of district councils (excluding metropolitan municipalities) also cast a third vote to elect a proportional representative for their district council, in addition to the two votes they cast for their local council.

Depending on the municipality and the relative strength of their campaign, independent candidates can upset the balance of power, especially if they are affiliated with an established party and able to secure the proportional representation seats as well. For differing reasons, the three parties to watch will be the EFF, Maimane’s One SA Movement and Mashaba’s Action SA.

Arguably the most important thing to understand about the EFF, its first strong showing and subsequent gains, is that owes at lot of its success to former members of the ANC Youth League who started the movement and formed the party. The principles of effective door-to-door campaigning were drilled into them and perfected while with the ANC. Consequently, the EFF leadership’s voter mobilisation and engagement between elections is a well-oiled machine. The qualitative difference in the EFF’s approach is clear when contrasted with sporadic and seemingly superficial campaigning adopted by other parties. If the local government election date had not been moved from 27 October to 1 November, the ANC would have failed to field candidates in 93 of the 257 municipalities because of its internal inefficiencies.

The EFF’s motivated campaign machinery is bolstered by strong messaging that resonates with frustrated and disgruntled voters. With days to go, AbaThembu King Buyelekhaya Dalindeybo’s recent endorsement of the EFF and plea that voters “teach ANC a lesson” is unlikely to significantly move the needle. It does, however, keep the EFF at the forefront of the news cycle ahead of the poll in which it is undoubtedly hoping to win its first ward in the townships. The EFF’s election promise of scrapping the need for social grant recipients to pay for basic services (currently subsidised) will appeal to many even though the EFF manifesto is light on detail about the funding mechanism for this initiative.

The EFF is unlikely to lead a majority national government in the next 15 years. Instead, we expect it to continue to influence local and national government mainstream politics from the side-lines, take credit for successes and attribute any failures to other parties. This allows for a more efficient use of their limited resources, while shaping local politics and policies to suit their stated aims.

New kids on the block

One SA Movement (OSA) and Action SA are two newcomers whose different strategies reflect the political ambitions of their leaders. OSA is fielding independent candidates in small municipalities such as Emfuleni in Gauteng, Enoch Mgijima in the Eastern Cape and Knysna in the Western Cape. These independent candidates are partnering with community organisations that will elect a candidate to stand in their ward. OSA is a civic movement, not a political party. As a result, its independent candidates will be held accountable by the Independent Candidate Association of South Africa, established by OSA and comprised of community associations, which will have the authority to fire councillors.

OSA leader Maimane’s approach has undertones of more developed European coalition political strategy, most notably Dutch. He has stated his ambitions to contest in the 2024 presidential election as an independent candidate. We expect the trend of coalitions at a local government level to continue unabated. Maimane’s gambit may pay off in the medium term and make his movement better prepared and trained for working effectively in and leading local government coalitions.

Mashaba has taken a slightly different approach. ActionSA benefits from Mashaba’s straight-talking, problem-solving reputation. The former Johannesburg mayor is tough on crime and corruption, unapologetic about his stance on immigration control, and convincing in his commitment to tackling issues such as urban rehabilitation and power shortages. Mashaba’s clear centre right message appeals to voters who are frustrated with years of disappointment with the ANC and establishment politics. In April, ActionSA launched a direct candidate election system that allowed residents to elect their party candidates in wards in which the party indented to contest. The direct democracy ethos inspired the American-like system – the first of its kind in South Africa.

From Soshanguve to Benoni to Lenasia, Mashaba is able to tap into voter sentiment in urban and peri-urban areas. Gauteng and KwaZulu Natal are in the party’s crosshairs, Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni and Tshwane metropolitan municipalities as clear targets. Outright control of metros is unlikely, however, the party is expected to be an important coalition partner for any party except the ANC. Coalitions with the DA will be more likely than those with the EFF.

X marks the spot

The 30 – 39 and 20 – 29 age groups respectively represent 24% and 22% of registered voters. This group either grew up after the end of apartheid or has limited recollection relative to older voters. This group has a more acute awareness and experience of the country’s present challenges as opposed to its previous obstacles. The 20 – 39 age group will be prime targets for smaller parties looking to win over first-time voters and convert disillusioned ones. The challenge with this demographic will be converting fervent social media engagement to a physical presence at the ballot box on 1 November. Media headlines and bullish party tweets aside, the determining factor will be the extent to which voter apathy has taken root in the main parties’ traditional support base and what this means for voter turnout on the day.

Although Covid-19 will be a concern for voters, it is unlikely to be the determining factor. Absentee ballots proved to be instrumental in shaping the outcome of the 2020 US election; special votes will not play a similar role in the South African local government election. The Independent Election Commission has approved 741 721 special voting applications. In the context of 26 333 353 voters, this is a negligible amount.

We expect a relatively poorer showing for the ANC in Gauteng, North West, Free State KwaZulu Natal and Eastern Cape, while the DA is likely to lose ground in KwaZulu Natal, Gauteng and the Eastern Cape. In its Western Cape stronghold, the Freedom Front Plus, Good and  Patriotic Alliance are looking to challenge to the DA’s dominance in the province. Increasingly fractured voting patterns and the emergence of significant new parties strongly suggest local government coalitions in six of the metropolitan municipalities except Mangaung and Cape Town. eThekwini remains a tight race but the ANC should win this metro.

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Counting the cost

Of the 257 municipalities, only 199 submitted their audits in time for inclusion in the Auditor General’s 2019-20 consolidated report. Over 50 need national government funding in order to continue as a going concern. Citing “rising liquidity pressure as a result of material shortfalls in revenue collection”, which is expected to last, Moody’s downgraded five metropolitan municipalities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and Nelson Mandela Bay. This decision came on the back of violence and looting in Gauteng and KwaZulu Natal in July and a downgrade of Tshwane in June.

A common theme across the downgrades is concerns about low levels of revenue collection, poor governance systems at a municipal level, and a deteriorating operational environment characterised by weak economic growth, high levels of income inequality and unemployment and social unrest. The intensity and pervasiveness, not the issues themselves, is new in South Africa. The action needed to address these issues call for the long-awaited national structural reforms that grow more pressing, but also more politically unpalatable by the day.

The challenges facing municipalities come at a time when the government is seeking to boost foreign direct investment. Even if the policy environment is conducive in certain industries, the operating environment will continue to pose a challenge. In June, Clover announced their decision to close the country’s biggest cheese factory in Lichtenburg, North West due to poor service delivery. It cited water, electricity and road infrastructure challenges that triggered the decision to move operations to Queensburgh, Durban. Poorly governed, illiquid municipalities like Ditsobola Local Municipality, where Clover was based, will experience capital flight and greater dependence on the fiscus to make up any revenue shortfalls. This will place greater fiscal pressure on the national government and lock those residing in a poor district in an inescapable poverty cycle.

Beyond the polls

These local government elections matter at a municipal level because they will consolidate and accelerate the coalition government trend. South Africa has a poor track-record of stable municipal coalitions and this is unlikely to change in the near term. This, in addition to the existing challenges, will result in uneven service delivery across municipalities.

These local governments elections also matter at a national level for the ANC and DA. As soon as the election results are announced, unofficial campaigning for the ANC’s elective conference will begin. President Cyril Ramaphosa won the previous election by the smallest margin since the ANC’s founding in 1912. The party remains highly fractured and its branches are in disarray. The Zondo Commission will finally come to an end in December but the National Prosecuting Authority appears to be slow at gathering evidence and starting prosecutions. This has drawn out what many hoped would be a process that brought catharsis and swift justice. In addition to this albatross, Ramaphosa still has to contend with the ability of former President Jacob Zuma to overtly tilt the party’s configuration and Deputy President David Mabuza’s ability to do so covertly.

The main opposition party leader is also under pressure. If the DA significantly underperforms on election day – a distinct possibility – Steenhuisen may not represent the party in 2024. Some of the adaptive and inclusionary approaches spearheaded by prominent party members outside of the inner circle have struggled to take root. The party’s recent disjointed rebranding points to confusion about what the party is, what it is to who and who it’s meant to serve. When the DA had a clear identity and focus, this was rewarded by voters and reflected in the election results. This slightly nebulous form, drawing from the party’s more stringent right-wing roots may shore up party donations, but it will fail to make a difference where it really counts.