South Africa: Local elections a thunderous rebuke for ANC

ANC polls less than 60% for first time since end of apartheid

Nothing could have captured the full dimensions of the ANC’s humiliation more resoundingly than Zuma’s presidential address at the official announcement of results ceremony. Four young black women, courageous anti-rape activists, stood in front of Zuma’s podium facing the entire ANC establishment, holding up placards reminding the country and the world of the rape accusations Zuma was acquitted of ten years ago.

Paralysed, the security guards could not intervene until an unsuspecting Zuma – as oblivious of what was unfolding right under his nose as he is of the political catastrophe his reign has brought on the country and his own party – completed his speech and stepped down from the podium. In a perfectly executed ambush, these activists became the focus of live television, completely overshadowing Zuma’s speech as well as the EFF’s attempt to grab the spotlight by staging a walk-out.


For the first time since the end of apartheid in 1994, the ANC has polled less than 60%, declining to just under 54% of the votes cast, a fall of over 8% since the 2014 general election. Far more significant than the 3.3 million decline in its overall vote compared to the 2014 general election, was the loss of its majority in five out of the eight urban metros, including all three in Gauteng. In the southern province of the Western Cape it lost control of Beaufort West to the DA, and of Modimolle and Thabazimbi in the northern province of Limpopo. Across the country there are now 27 councils where no party has a clear majority – an unprecedented development.

The ANC emerged victorious over the opposition Democratic Alliance’s 27%. But this outcome resembled less a victory and more of a defeat, the number of votes received overshadowed by the severe battering of its arrogant belief that it was pre-ordained to rule, in Zuma’s infamous words, “until Jesus comes”. Its aura of electoral invincibility lies shattered.

Ahead of the elections, the fall of the Nelson Mandela Bay (NMB) metro in the Eastern Cape had been considered a prime candidate for an ANC reversal – and even that was not regarded as a dead certainty. That defeat, in the biggest city in the Eastern Cape, the ANC’s spiritual home and former fortress — the home province of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and the Mbekis, both former president Thabo and his father Govan – was hugely symbolic, and even historic in its own right.

But the importance of the humiliation inflicted in NMB is far exceeded by its defeat to the DA in the capital Tshwane and its failure, despite winning a narrow lead over the DA, to secure an outright majority in the other two Gauteng metros – the economic powerhouse of Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni’s East Rand industrial belt.

Constitutionally, local governments must be formed within 90 days or fresh elections must be held. The Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs has already issued a warning that he will invoke legislation that empowers him to take municipalities that fail to form government into administration and run them from national government. Both such developments would compete with other aspects of these elections as unprecedented.

ANC severely wounded

The combined effect of these defeats is the portrayal of the ANC as severely wounded and vulnerable to losing its majority in the 2019 general election – a prospect that has now moved beyond the fantasies of the extravagant rhetoric of the Economic Freedom Fighters, into the realm of political possibility.

Capturing one aspect of the process underlying the ANC’s decline, Wits University Professor Susan Booysen, (Business Day (04.08/16) says, “Two tectonic plates of political change are moving past each other, causing electoral tremors. The one plate represents the strong link between the ANC, the struggle and liberation consciousness. The other reflects the eroded trust in the ANC and its government and the recognition that, despite it liberation roots, the ANC is facing post liberation demands for accountability”. What is moving the plates however, is the collision between the irreconcilable class interests of the pro-capitalist ANC and the black working class which it has increasingly become alienated from, arrogantly succumbing to the belief that black working class votes were the ANC’s by historical right.

To rub salt into the ANC’s wounds, where it was knocked into second place, it was by the hated Democratic Alliance – a right wing pro-capitalist party whose historical origins stretch deep into SA’s colonial and apartheid past and which in its first post-apartheid incarnation (as the Democratic Party) obtained no more than 1.7% in the historic 1994 elections. Zuma in particular tried desperately to exploit the DA’s past with strident denunciations of any black person who could possibly contemplate voting for such a party. Repetitions of Mandela’s description of the DA as a party of white privilege whose black members are stooges of its white leadership not only had no effect but wafted across the political atmosphere like the odour of fear of impending defeat.

That this had no effect in stopping the ANC’s slide reflects the exhaustion of the ANC’s ability to rely on its liberation credentials to retain voter support. Zuma’s almost comical recital of the roll call of ANC struggle heroes contrasting them to the DA’s apartheid ancestors, was answered by a voter who said: “We want a government that can take society forward; we don’t need lectures about the past.” Despite all the rhetoric, it is not ruled out that the ANC could try and form coalitions with the DA in a desperate attempt to retain power.

ANC slides

Some on the left have fallen into despair over this result, in effect condemning black voters for supporting “their own oppressors”. Some have put forward the absurd perspective that the DA would now be able to return the country to apartheid. Far from this result being the consequence of a surge in DA support, it came about much more from a massive rejection of the ANC as millions stayed away from the polls. In line with trends that WASP (and its forerunner the DSM) had drawn attention to before, there has been a dramatic decline in voter participation over the previous general elections stretching back as far back as 2004. In 2014 the ANC’s 62% parliamentary majority concealed the reality that its rule was based on only 35% of the eligible voting population, just under two-thirds of it from the rural areas. Of the 26 million registered to voters this time, only 15 million participated. The ANC’s vote declined from 11,436,921 in 2014 to 8,124,223 in 2016, a massive difference of 3,312,698 votes. Its share of the eligible voting population has now fallen to 31%.

The significance of the outcome of these elections is heightened by the fact that this time the ANC has been punished in both urban and rural provinces. So while the swing away from the ANC in Gauteng since the 2011 local government election was 14%, the more rural provinces showed a very similar decline, dropping by 13% in Limpopo, in North West by 16%, in the Free State by 9% and in Mpumalanga by 8%. It grew only in KwaZulu-Natal and by a meagre 1%. (Business Day 08/08/16). The ANC held onto its majorities in the rural provinces because the DA is mainly an urban middle class phenomenon whose inroads into the black townships are mostly in the single digits.

Democratic Alliance

More importantly, the DA’s victories mean no more than that it obtained the biggest share of the vote in Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay. With the single exception of Cape Town which it has held since 2006, returned with a 67% majority to the ANC’s humiliating 27%, and where the ANC’s election campaign could not have more effectively alienated the coloured (mixed race) voter if it was calculated to do so, did the DA defeat the ANC convincingly.

Despite the fact that general and municipal elections are not directly comparable, votes are registered in such a manner that they provide a reliable indicator of the likely outcome in both. It was the 2014 general elections that revealed the ANC’s vulnerability in Nelson Mandela Bay, Tshwane, Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni.

In fact the DA’s total of 4,028,637 votes failed to break through the heights it achieved in the 2014 general elections when it received 4,091,584 in fact a slight decline of 62,947. Convinced that it had momentum behind it, and confident that Zuma’s disastrous reign would funnel votes its way, the DA set itself a target of 30% by 2016 a target it fell short of by 3%.

As former DA staffer and now Business Day columnist Gareth van Onselen points out, in 2014 the DA “… by its own calculations, managed 760,000 black voters (less than 20%). Not all of those will have voted in 2016, so the party has captured some new black votes but, as the pool of DA voters was practically the same in 2016 (4 million votes), the proportion is unlikely to be significantly higher. Basically, in some areas the DA will have grown but high turnout (more DA votes across the demographic board) is likely to explain that, as opposed to growth among new black voters in particular. As suburban, traditionally DA, voters turned out in large numbers, the big turnout differential between suburb and townships (as much as 18%) tipped the balance away from the ANC. (Business Day 08/08/16).

Like the ANC in Ekurhuleni and Johannesburg, the DA, its own delusions of taking control of key metros now evaporated, has to rely on horse trading with smaller parties to form coalitions in order to govern in Nelson Mandela Bay and Tshwane. Even then, it is not at all certain that it will be able to use its majority to form a government in Tshwane where none of the smaller parties have enough votes to give it sufficient seats to do so. It is thus dependent on a coalition with the EFF to give it the necessary majority. This is something that would be possible only if the EFF wants to commit political suicide. In its short political life the EFF has built its support on a message of radical black nationalism and left populism, denouncing the DA as a racist party of white monopoly capital.


Although the EFF obtained 8.2%, retaining the position of the third biggest party it established in the 2014 elections, its breakthrough year, and becoming the second biggest party by votes in Limpopo, Commander-in-Chief Julius Malema, feigning an unusual modesty, has admitted “defeat.” The EFF leadership had set itself the target of trebling its vote and winning an unspecified number of councils. In the event they did not win one single council. Such success as the EFF has had in capitalising on disillusionment with the ANC, has fallen well short of the level of support they had hoped to use to bargain with the ANC.

In the run-up to the elections, the EFF had boasted that it would use its control of municipalities to bargain with the ANC, giving each other reciprocal support in municipalities where their votes fell short of an overall majority. The EFF clearly anticipated much more substantial support in the metros than they received. In our election statement WASP warned about the political implications of such deal-making and appealed to the EFF rank-and-file to oppose that approach.

Whether is because the EFF has heeded our warnings, or because it has simply woken up to the reality of the implications, it is has changed its position for now. It is reported to have rejected overtures from the DA in Tshwane and reaffirmed their opposition to any coalition with the ANC. It will not form coalitions with parties “that have no policies to help the African child”, ruling out a deal with the DA, and is not prepared to let the ruling party ANC back into power through the backdoor, ruling out a coalition with them.

But the language in which the EFF is couching its position still leaves the door open for such arrangements. It is willing, Commander-in-Chief Julius Malema stated, to consider “coalitions of the opposition.” There is not an ounce of radicalism let alone socialism in the policies of any of the smaller parties in parliament. Meaningful deals of any political consequence can be entered into only with the ANC or the DA. Imprisoned by its strident denunciation of both — key to cementing its support amongst the layers it has attracted — any deal with them would do enormous, possibly fatal damage to its credibility and put paid to its 2019 general election ambitions.

Despite its reiteration of its “principled positions”, the EFF is likely to come under tremendous pressure both from within the ANC’s anti-Zuma faction and even from the bourgeoisie itself. The strategists of the bourgeois have been encouraged by Malema’s growing “political maturity” as the EFF’s Commander-in-Chief steers his party, whilst reiterating its uncompromising demand for expropriation of land without compensation, more and more to the centre. The logic of this process is the divestiture of its radical socialist clothing. On key questions such as nationalisation the EFF has sent signals of its willingness to dilute its position and is increasingly portraying itself as a party of “democrats” and staunch defenders of the country’s bourgeois constitution.

The temptation to make deals will increase as the crisis within the ANC intensifies — a development that is inevitable in the wake of this disastrous result.

Internal strife

Already the volume of the whispered pre-election recriminations has begun to be turned upwards. Zuma has wasted little time in launching the first salvo against his detractors at a speech at a meeting in Kwa Zulu Natal, where he launched a stinging attack on former president Kgalema Motlanthe and former Cabinet Secretary the Rev Frank Chikane – both vocal critics of his presidency, asking indignantly, how he, as an ANC member, could be considered a liability.

Zuma was reacting to calls growing louder that he be recalled. But the ANC’s dominant pro-Zuma “Premier League” faction led by the premiers of the North West, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal will use the fact that, unlike the Eastern Cape and Gauteng, in their provinces the ANC retained its majorities to argue that the ANC’s performance has nothing to do with Zuma. They will have been encouraged by the fact that the #ZumaMustFall demonstrations following the Constitutional Court judgment — that found that Zuma had violated the constitution in using public money on his Nkandla homestead – failed to attract mass support.

Even before the elections rumours started circulating that the Gauteng provincial executive committee would be dissolved should the ANC lose. The Gauteng leadership had been vocal in their call for Zuma to consider his position in the wake of the court judgment and had attempted to keep Zuma out of the election campaign. Zuma simply swept aside their objections succeeding to turn the Gauteng structures to accept his widely derided apology over Nkandla.

But the Premier League provinces are themselves riddled with divisions. In Mpumalanga there have been physical confrontations between the SACP and the ANC. KwaZulu-Natal is split down the middle with a legal challenge to the provincial congress set to inflame these antagonisms post-election. In the North West the ANC bled votes to disgruntled ANC members who stood as independents.

The ANC’s 2016 campaign was lifted straight out of the manual of how to alienate voters and lose an election. Zuma’s dismissal of Nkandla corruption criticisms as the bleating of “clever blacks” was reinforced by secretary general Gwede Mantashe’s insult of Soweto voters for behaving like Americans with no appreciation of the right to vote. The contestation for councillor and mayoral positions was nothing more than a naked struggle for access to resources for self-enrichment. It resulted in assassinations that reached new depths of barbarity in the run-up to the 2016 elections and riots in the capital led to the loss of five lives after the ANC head office imposed their own candidate in an attempt to cut-across damaging political squabbles.

The timidity of the anti-Zuma faction meant that the face of the ANC’s campaign was a scandal-prone president whose goons in the SA Broadcasting Corporation banned images of anti-government protests only to see it overturned in the courts. Having presided over a consistent decline in ANC support in the four elections over the two terms of his presidency Zuma‘s parting gift to the ANC is the very real prospect of defeat in the 2019 elections.

Faced with the prospect of going to jail as the corruption charges he has so far managed to evade have been reinstated, Zuma has not the slightest intention of changing course. He will continue to abuse state resources and the legal process in his Stalingrad strategy to put off the commencement of any possible trial until he has seen out his term as ANC president in 2017 and of the country in 2019. There will be renewed internal conflict as the succession battle escalates.

It remains to be seen whether the anti-Zuma faction will grow a spine as the prospects of defeat in 2019 looms and with it the loss of control over state resources and the opportunities to loot and plunder the country. Zuma in the meantime will tighten his grip over the police, the intelligence services, and state-owned enterprises. Itself as committed to the ANC’s neo-liberal capitalist policies as the Zuma faction, the anti-Zuma faction has no alternative vision to offer and thus incapable of inspiring confidence, from within and without the ANC, that the party could be saved from implosion.

Whatever the outcome of the ANC’s internal factional struggle, it is collectively responsible for the Marikana massacre, the accelerated widening of the gap between rich and poor, mass unemployment and deepening poverty that occurred on Zuma’s watch. The conditions facing the masses are set to worsen as the country’s economy, likely to grow a paltry 0.1% this year, faces the likelihood of a rating agency downgrade as the world economy continues its failure to emerge from the Great Recession of the 2008 and faces the possibility of a new and worse crash. Zuma’s legacy is likely to be not only a divided if not a completely fractured ANC but a disastrous economic landscape.

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August 2016