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South Africa local elections: Worst outing for ANC since 1994

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South African voters queue at a polling station for the outside the hostels in Umlazi, Durban on August 3, 2016. South Africans vote today in closely-contested municipal elections that could deal a heavy blow to the African National Congress (ANC) that has ruled since leading the struggle against apartheid. MARCO LONGARI / AFP

South African voters queue at a polling station for the outside the hostels in Umlazi, Durban on August 3, 2016. South Africans vote today in closely-contested municipal elections that could deal a heavy blow to the African National Congress (ANC) that has ruled since leading the struggle against apartheid.<br />MARCO LONGARI / AFP

Last week’s local government elections in South Africa saw the African National Congress (ANC) recording its worst election results since the end of apartheid in 1994.

The ANC registered less than 60percent of the national vote for the first time in more than 20 years and lost its majority in key urban areas, including Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela Bay and the capital Pretoria.

The opposition, Democratic Alliance (DA), took the majority of votes in Pretoria and Nelson Mandela Bay. As a result, a coalition government will now be needed in some of South Africa’s most important localities. Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have taken the role of giving either the ANC or the DA the majority they need. Though the governing ANC achieved an overall national majority in the latest polls, it was left in a significantly weaker position in major metros across the country, including losing Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay to the DA, who already control Cape Town.

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Jacob Zuma, the South African president and leader of the ANC, is facing a lot of criticism and a renewed call to step down. It has been on Zuma’s watch that the ANC’s electoral dominance has diminished. In 2011 local elections, the ANC secured 63% of the vote. In this election, support decreased to 54.5% and the DA increased from 24% to 27%. Across the country, the EFF polled at 8.2% – up from its general election result of 6.4% in 2014. Opinion polls had predicted that the ANC would lose support.

Under Zuma, the ANC has retained and strengthened its rural dominance, but has at the same time, lost support in urban constituencies. In three metros; Tshwane, Johannesburg and Nelson Mandela Bay – coalition governments will now shape a new kind of politics in the next few days that parties have to form a coalition government and as the ANC heads towards its elective conference in December 2017, and the next general election in 2019.

The specific significance of the ANC losing control of Nelson Mandela Bay is tied to the fact that the Eastern cape is the historic heartland of the ANC. From its founding in 1912, the African National Congress led the struggle against white-minority rule in South Africa. After eight decades of sacrifice and perseverance, it finally overthrew the racist apartheid regime, and in 1994, Nelson Mandela became president of the new, democratic, South Africa. The ANC, thus, earned the loyalty of the black South African electorate. As the indigenous blacks make up the overwhelming majority in South Africa, the ANC have won every election since 1994.

Reasons for the sharp decline in support for the ANC are vast, but most seem to stem from the disapproval of Zuma as a leader, and the recent controversies surrounding him. The South African president has come under severe criticism in recent months, following a series of scandals. The country’s highest court ruled in March that Zuma had violated the constitution by ignoring the 2014 report by the public protector regarding the state-funded expansion of his property in Nkandla. Recent reports revealed that upgrades to Zuma’s private home were funded with $20m of public money. The constitutional court, recently, instructed the president to reimburse the state $507,000. South Africa’s High Court also ruled in April that almost 800 corruption charges against Zuma, that were dropped in 2009, should be reinstated.

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The South African economy has also stagnated since 2008’s global financial crisis, and the country has one of the highest rates of economic inequality in the world. Moreover, the high youth unemployment that is rampant among black South Africans, has drawn voters’ attention to the ANC’s failure to follow through on promises to redistribute income. The recent reminder of the 2006 rape trial, which Zuma was later acquitted of, does not help matters either. This reminder came last week as protesters disrupted his speech during the announcement of the election results.

However, waning support for the ANC could actually be a positive development for South Africa. This could spark an era of multiparty politics in which the ANC’s victory is not always guaranteed as it previously was. Not only would that be healthy for South Africa’s democracy, the awareness that they now have genuine competition will also force the ANC to resolve whatever internal conflicts they are facing, and select strong leaders in the future.

This will also strengthen opposition parties, as they will now have a stronger chance than ever of stealing votes from the ruling party. Such a situation would serve as a check on the ANC’s power. Enhancing and strengthening democracy in South Africa is especially pertinent, given recent events in neighbouring Zimbabwe. As president Robert Mugabe holds on to power after 30 years in office, the opposition continue to call for his impeachment. With a more pluralist democracy, South Africa could avert similar disaster that Zimbabwe has found itself currently.


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