South Africa’s 2021 local government elections (LGE21) outcome marks the end of an era. For the first time since 1994, the African National Congress (ANC), the “party of liberation”, has crashed below 50%.
The working class has punished the ANC in successive elections over the last decade, but never like this before. The quantitative accumulation of working class rejection has, in line with one of the laws of dialectics, transformed the alienation and opposition of the working class towards the ANC into a qualitative one. Their slide to 46% of the votes cast at a local level starkly poses the possibility that South Africa is living under the last ANC-majority government. LGE21 may well be the dress rehearsal for the ANC to lose its outright majority at a national level on the 30th anniversary of democracy in the 2024 general elections.
The significance of these elections goes beyond the humiliating rebuff of just the ANC. They were seen as an opportunity by the vast majority of the working class, the poor and the youth to register their rejection of the entire capitalist political establishment. The foundations of the post-apartheid dispensation, so carefully constructed to conceal the perpetuation of the economic dictatorship of the capitalist class under the mask of parliamentary democracy, has experienced a seismic shock on the political plane first felt in the workplace in the tremors following the 2012 Marikana massacre.
The main opposition parties, the Democratic Alliance (DA), which is ideologically and unapologetically to the ANC’s right, as well as the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), with its radical pretensions to its left, have not been spared the wrath of the masses. The DA and EFF claim that they have succeeded in their objective of bringing the ANC below 50%. This is an attempt to steal from the masses their thunderous rebuke of the ANC. It is an attempt to take comfort in the ANC’s political misfortune to distract attention from their problems. Neither the DA nor the EFF, was able to capitalise. Like the ruling party, they have suffered a sobering reversal in their own political fortunes and the denial of their electoral ambitions as an alternative to the ANC.
The vacuum on the left has now become even more acute. The EFF, created in an attempt to exploit working class anger in the wake of the Marikana massacre, has revealed itself as merely the ANC’s external incarnation. Its leadership has indulged in corruption and diluted its radical rhetoric to accommodate the same “white monopoly capital” they ritually denounce, as well as the parasitic “traditional leaders” in the rural areas, exempting them from their demand for the expropriation of land without compensation.
The Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party, created by a grouping in the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (Numsa) leadership, did not even stand. In reality, the SRWP was established in an attempt to cut across the process led by the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) to form a workers’ party. Saftu convened a Working Class Summit (WCS) in 2018 where a thousand youth, community and trade union delegates adopted a declaration to form a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme.
Smarting from its humiliating failure to secure even one seat in the 2019 general elections despite claiming the support of Numsa’s 340,000 members, the SRWP-supporting leadership in the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) has expended all its energies in political strike-breaking at the Saftu leadership-level to obstruct the implementation of the 2018 WCS declaration. The SRWP is now in a deep crisis with members in two provinces defying the central committee’s decision not to contest.
Working Class Revolts by Abstention
For most the rejection of the major capitalist parties took the form of abstention. Across the country, turnout in townships and industrial areas was lower than in the suburbs. In places like Soweto, the ANC vote collapsed. Overall, turnout sank to 46%, its lowest level ever. Barely 12 million turned out to their polling stations. However, the real turnout was lower still. In addition to the 14 million who registered but did not turn out on the day, a further 13 million did not even register. This means that less than one-third of eligible voters (31%) cast their ballots.
For Marxists, these developments come as no huge surprise. The working class has suffered enormous hardship during the Covid-19 pandemic. The economy has been battered. Unemployment has increased to sky-high levels and poverty has deepened. While the ANC-government has begrudgingly dangled the R350 Social Relief of Distress grant before the unemployed masses, under the constant threat of snatching even this away, the ruling party’s ‘cadres’ viewed the pandemic as an opportunity for indulging in the most shocking orgy of looting. Billions were stolen in PPE, sanitisation and other scandals. Incredibly, during a health emergency, the health minister and two provincial health MECs were dismissed for corruption!
As if to remind the masses of the government’s incompetence and corruption, in the week before the elections the country’s electricity provider, Eskom, implemented the worst electricity power cuts since 2019. This enraged working class communities, especially those who had suffered months and even years of prolonged blackouts alongside water cuts in large parts of the country. This was captured graphically in Soweto when President Ramaphosa, desperate to exploit opinion poll ratings that consistently indicated that he was more popular than his party, was booed with angry demands for a restoration of electricity.
The final insult, washing away any residue of ‘Ramaphoria’, largely a media invention anyway, was the chaos and destruction of July’s riots. In these events, both factions of the ANC demonstrated with a fresh brutality the utter contempt they have for the masses. Without blinking an eyelid, the ANC’s RET faction had no compunction in exploiting the misery of the masses caused by the very same economic policies they share responsibility for with Ramaphosa’s faction. As many working class residents recognised, by instigating the looting, destruction of infrastructure, clinics, schools and retail centres serving their communities, literally burning them to the ground, the ANC was importing the factional struggle of the corrupt ANC capitalist political elite into the ranks of the masses using them as so much cannon fodder.
The ANC’s precipitous electoral decline was no bolt from a clear blue sky. In the 2016 local government elections, taking place at the height of the Zuma-era ‘state capture’ corruption scandals, the ANC slipped eight percentage points compared to the 2014 national elections (62% to 54%). It clung on to a majority of votes cast but lost its majority in the key metros of Johannesburg, Tshwane, Ekurhuleni and Nelson Mandela Bay. We described those elections as, “at an electoral level … a turning point in the ANC’s post-apartheid history – a point at which the arrow of its political fortunes is now firmly pointing south.”
The ANC’s slight ‘recovery’ in the 2019 national elections, in which Ramaphosa replaced Zuma, gave the ANC factions some false comfort. Whilst their percentage-share crept back to 57.5%, the result still represented a loss of 1.5 million votes compared to 2014. The Gauteng province, the country’s economic and political heartland, was retained by only a whisker.
The attitude of the working class masses was that the ANC could have the “one more chance” it grovelled for again, so hypocritically, in LGE21. Hoping against hope, many had voted ANC in 2019 on the strength of Ramaphosa’s promises to sweep away corruption after Zuma’s ejection from the presidency. This enabled him to drag the ANC across the line to once more form a majority. The sewage of PPE corruption that seeped into the presidency itself stripped Ramaphosa of the slender credibility he enjoyed. It turned him from the engine that had helped ensure the ANC’s victory in 2019 into a critical factor in its defeat as the masses, as we pointed out in 2016, turned away from it in disgust.
The hammering the ANC took in the metros in 2016 has thus not reversed in LGE21. In Johannesburg they slid nearly another 10 percentage points (to 36%); in Ekurhuleni they lost more than 10 percentage points (falling to 38%); in Tshwane, they lost 6.6 percentage points (finishing with 35%), and in Nelson Mandela Bay they fell another 1.5 percentage points (to 39%). The collapse across Gauteng continued with the ANC dropping nearly ten percentage points further, to just 36%. Of Gauteng’s nine municipalities and metros, the ANC has a majority in only one and this is also by a microscopic majority. In Cape Town, the ANC shed a further quarter of its already meagre vote, slipping from 24% to just 18.6%. Mangaung metro was retained by 0.63% – just 1,132 votes! The only metro the ANC retained comfortably was Buffalo City but even here they received nearly 54,000 fewer votes than in 2016.
Surpassing the major metro losses in 2016, the ANC only has an overall majority in two of the country’s eight metros. In perhaps the biggest blow, the ANC lost its majority in the eThekwini metro, its vote plummeting by a staggering 14 percentage points. In brutal punishment for the July riots, across KwaZulu-Natal, as a whole, the collapse was even steeper – the ANC vote fell 16 percentage points to just 41% of the votes cast. This is a loss of 1.6 million votes compared to 2016, a 43% collapse, losing the ANC control of 18 municipalities and costing 253 councillors their jobs. In Northern Cape, the ANC only kept its majority by half a percentage point – a mere 3,500 votes. The ANC will have to add Northern Cape and KZN to their list of provinces in danger of slipping from their control in 2024, alongside Gauteng.
All Capitalist Parties Lose
These elections confirm the acceleration of the ruling class’s political crisis under the blows of the pandemic and economic crisis. It is not only the acceleration of the southward movement of the ANC’s arrow of political fortunes that have been revealed in these elections. In 2016 the DA and the EFF were able, at least partially, to pick up a swathe of the voters abandoning the ANC to use them as a whip to lash it. But not this time. That single arrow, aimed by the working class at its main ANC target, has been transformed into a volley of arrows, inflicting wounds on all the major capitalist parties.
Both attempted to take advantage of the ANC’s factional travails in pursuit of their own electoral ambitions. Steenhuizen was installed against the background of a renunciation of the dalliance with the EFF under Maimane. No sooner had he taken office, than Steenhuizen let it slip that they would be prepared to work with a Ramaphosa-led ANC – the hope of a split left unsaid.
The DA is the only other party with a historically stable base of support. In their case, this support is amongst the white middle class whose relative stability was built on the wealth and property accumulated over half a century of apartheid. But under the pressure of widespread corruption, SA’s economic crisis, now deepened by the pandemic, is hollowing out too.
Intoxicated by their highest ever vote in 2014, they set themselves the ambition, in the short-term to secure 25% of the national vote, and the aim of adding the economic power hub and political centre of the country, Gauteng, to the Western Cape. So irrational was their exuberance, they set themselves the ambition by the end of the next decade to become the alternative government. As a platform for realising these ambitions, the DA’s funders pressurised the party into making a conscious turn to the black electorate. Despite leading the DA to its highest ever vote, Helen Zille was humiliated into resigning and Musi Maimane was installed as its first-ever back leader in what was more a coronation than an election.
The DA’s failure to expand its footprint into the black electorate in 2019 was followed by bitter recrimination. Abandoning Maimane insultingly as an “experiment” gone wrong, the party was reclaimed by the ‘old guard’. The humiliation of its first black party leader sparked the departure of a number of senior black figures, most prominently its first black mayor, Herman “capitalist crusader” Mashaba.
Forced to step down by the blackmail of its funders after 2014, Zille effectively led a counter-coup, seizing power through the back door of its party machinery. Former leader Tony Leon rose from the grave to lead the DA’s recoil from “going black” electorally. It has been burnished as a white-dominated capitalist party defending the privileges of the white minority and exploiting the fears of the Coloured and Indian minorities. A haemorrhage of the black middle-class voters, many of whom had lent the DA their votes to punish the ANC, followed predictably.
Subjecting Maimane to the same humiliation as his predecessor, the party grandees replaced a windbag with a hologram – Steenhuizen. The reorientation to the policy of pandering to the prejudices and fears of the white, Coloured and Indian minorities backfired spectacularly in LGE21.
The black middle class cancelled their electoral loan. Unsettled by the return of “white minority rule” within the party, the Coloured and sections of Indian voters sought shelter in the new formations exploiting their identities – the Patriotic Alliance, Cape Coloured Congress and Al Jamaa-ah. The DA leadership opportunistically accepted the EFF’s gift of the mayoralty in Tshwane and Joburg, notwithstanding the EFF’s strident anti-white racism and demand for the expropriation of land without compensation notwithstanding. The DA’s traditional white base concluded that they were sacrificial electoral lambs on the altar of the DA leadership’s ambitions and sought the protection of the Freedom Front (VF) Plus.
Receiving just fewer than 22% of the vote, the DA failed to come close to matching its 2016 high-water mark of 27%. It shed nearly 3 million votes nationally. In its Western Cape base, frustration at its rule saw it receive 800,000 fewer votes, and in Cape Town alone 600,000 less. In Tshwane, they crashed by more than 11 percentage points. The DA has paid the price for mimicking the EFF’s hypocrisy and opportunism over the course of the 2016-21 local government term.
The EFF nudged forward two percentage points, from 8.19% in 2016 to 10.4%, but this is less than the 10.8% they scored in the 2019 national elections. The EFF styles itself as a revolutionary movement, offering a genuinely radical alternative. If the working class believed this claim to be true in any way, the EFF should have been able to stand apart from the widespread rejection of the capitalist establishment. As one media commentator put it, this was the EFF’s election to lose. But lose they did! The same wave of rejection swamped their small boat too.
The EFF’s national vote was down by more than 27,000. But this hides the devastating loss of support in its previously strongest areas. They have not succeeded in securing majority control of a single municipality in the country. Across Limpopo, where leaders became embroiled in corruption involving the theft of millions of poor black pensioners’ savings from the VBS bank, they finished second overall but received over 100,000 fewer votes than in 2016.
In Gauteng, the EFF vote was down by over 174,000. Wherever they played a role in the post-2016 metro coalitions they lost support. In Johannesburg they were pushed into fourth place by Herman Mashaba’s Action SA, losing over 82,000 votes; in Tshwane, they lost over 61,000 votes; and, in Nelson Mandela Bay they lost over 5,000.
In addition to fresh corruption scandals, the EFF leadership clearly miscalculated massively in their cosying-up to Zuma in the face of his contempt of court judgement. The patronising arrogance of the EFF leadership blinded them to the reality that voters would notice their unprincipled somersaulting. Whilst denouncing the DA as a “racist party of white monopoly capital” they installed them as mayors in 2016. Having played a leading role in creating the climate for Zuma’s removal through their popular “pay back the money” parliamentary theatrics, they were prepared to auction off the EFF to the highest bidder in the ANC’s factional wars through the tea party with Zuma. Demonstrating their disdain for the black poor, the EFF leadership, like the DA before, embraced traditional leader, Chief Dalindyebo, turning a blind eye to his criminal conviction for assaulting one of his “subjects”. It has taken the ANC twenty-seven years and the DA twenty one to descend to the level they find themselves in today. It has taken the EFF less than ten.
Combined, the ANC, the DA and the EFF have the active electoral support of just 18%, 8.5% and 4% of the population respectively. Put another way, less than 1 in 5 people voted for the ANC, less than 1 in 10 for the DA and less than 1 in 20 for the EFF! Altogether only 30 out of every 100 people voted for any of the three main political parties. Many of those that did will have done so with no enthusiasm. To borrow Malema’s phrase they were simply viewed as the “better devils”.
The idea pushed by sections of the capitalist media of a resurgent Inkatha Freedom Party in KZN, benefitting from the collapse of the ANC vote is also utter fiction. It is true that the IFP received 24% of the votes cast in KZN, up from 18% in 2016. They gained 108 councillors, took control of 9 municipalities and became the largest party in a further 16 (compared to the control of 6 municipalities and the leading party in 7 in 2016). But this was ‘achieved’ by an increase in votes of just 47,901 – a mere 3.86% improvement compared to 2016. The ANC by contrast lost 1.6 million votes in KZN.
Even if all of the IFP’s additional votes came from former ANC voters (which is of course ruled out) that would still mean they failed to convince 97.02% of former-ANC voters in KZN to switch to them. The most recent estimate of the KZN voting-age population is 7 million (of which just fewer than 5.5 million registered). That means that the IFP’s real active electoral support in KZN is barely 9% – less than 1 in 10 people. The KZN ANC leadership’s preoccupation with Zulu tribalism is clearly a complete misreading of the mood and, in fact, will have compounded the ANC’s losses in the province.
Parties & Classes
The remaining votes are scattered to the wind. Over 400 parties contested these elections. Of these only two won more than 1% of the vote – the VF Plus (2.37% and 220 seats) and newcomers ActionSA (2.36% and 90 seats). In addition, 1,546 independent candidates stood – nearly double the 865 who stood in 2016 – and 51 were elected. If the independents were a party they would have finished seventh nationally, with a combined 1.75% of the vote. Ultimately, this explosion of contestation was an acute symptom of the complete absence of the working class as an organised political force in these elections.
The working class, and especially the organised working class in Cosatu, was historically the bedrock of ANC support. But implementing capitalist programmes over six terms of office has completely hollowed out the ANC’s working class base. Eroding from the day they took office in 1994, the pace accelerated following the 2012 Marikana massacre. In the wake of this, Cosatu split, leading to the rise of Amcu on the mines and, in 2017, the foundation of Saftu driven by industrial workers, especially the metalworkers of Numsa, leaving Cosatu as a predominantly public sector federation.
The political authority of the South African Communist Party (SACP) -dominated Cosatu leadership, now largely based on public sector workers, dealt itself another self-inflicted mortal blow in these elections. Demonstrating the utter bankruptcy of the leadership they called for an ANC vote in the face of the worst attack on public sector pay, collective bargaining and even the sacrosanct right to strike in the post-apartheid era. However, the vast majority of Cosatu members clearly refused to campaign for the ANC, to say nothing of mobilising the working class more widely. As usual, travelling in the opposite direction to the masses, the SACP in the Free State municipality of Metsimaholo, standing independently of the ANC for the first time in the party’s history in a November 2017 by-election in which they won three councillors, did not contest and its councillors ran instead for the ANC.
Overwhelmingly, the small parties, including even the EFF, and the majority of independent candidates, have emerged from the different layers of the petty bourgeoisie. They are the tiny bubbles created in the water as the large stone of the ANC and the small stone of the DA sink. They accumulate as foam on the water’s surface – the tiny bubbles rapidly bursting only to be replaced by new ones. The emergence of the working class as an independent political force will wash all of this away. However, until that happens, these tiny bubbles can play a role in the manoeuvres of the ruling class out of all proportion, not just to their vote, but in the virtual absence of any social base, let alone a relatively stable one.
Ruling Class Political Crisis
The outcome of these elections has massively worsened the headache afflicting the ruling class. But with no end to SA capitalism’s economic crisis in sight there can be no end in sight for the ruling class’s political crisis either.
The collapse in the ANC and DA vote has more than doubled the number of hung councils to 66. This is almost a quarter of all local governments! The post-2016 coalitions, especially in the metros, were unstable – only the ANC-led coalition in Ekurhuleni survived the full term. A fresh period of local government instability, affecting more and more of the country, now lies ahead.
But it is what these elections signal for the 2024 national elections that will be transforming the ruling class’s headache into a migraine. Despite ANC majority government no longer being any guarantee of (relative) political stability for capitalism, as the destructive Zuma-era ‘state capture’ and July riots have shown, it may still be preferable to the uncertainty of a new era of national coalition government. Transferring the chaos of the post-2016 local government coalitions, especially those in the metros, to the national stage could prove just as destabilising for capitalism.
Reversing the decline of the ANC seems ruled-out. Losing its majority in a further 39 municipalities alongside the loss of 618 council seats will intensify the destructive competition for positions and tenders that ultimately drives the ANC’s factional struggles. The only thing that will save Ramaphosa at the ANC’s 2022 National Conference will be the total absence of a credible candidate amongst those opposed to his continued presidency.
The outcome of these elections has also made the ruling class’s reserve option of a new Government of National Unity in the form of an ANC/DA coalition government more problematic. The party leaderships of the factionally divided ANC and DA, especially, have their work cut out to persuade members to embrace the very parties they have denounced so stridently in the elections. The signs are not promising. The EFF has already indicated to the ANC that in exchange for their support in Johannesburg, they want control of Tshwane. The DA is prepared to work with ActionSA but will baulk at returning him as mayor – the very DA position he resigned from.
As Sunday Times editor S’Themiso Msomi ruefully observes: “…judging by what the parties are saying, — the DA won’t work with the EFF but will work with ActionSA, ActionSA will work with the EFF and DA but not the ANC, the EFF will work with the ANC and ActionSA but not the DA etc. – it is clear that much of the conversation is clouded by what parties believe might happen in the next general elections.”
Even if the ruling class is able to pressure the squabbling politicians to enter such an arrangement, the collapse in turnout and haemorrhaging of votes by both the ANC and the DA, means that whilst they might be able to scrape a majority of votes cast, it is highly unlikely they could command the active support of a majority of the population.
Nor can the spirits of the first Government of National Unity that ushered in the post-apartheid democratic dispensation be summonsed from history. With the ANC commanding a 62% majority in 1994, the first edition of the GNU was put together not for political stability but to provide the ANC with a cover not to yield to the pressures of the masses for the radical measures necessary to fulfil their expectations. Its collapse in 1996, when the NP pulled out, did not, as we pointed out at the time, “disturb a single hair on the head” of the new democratic political order. The overwhelming majority of an ANC committed to capitalism, was sufficient for stability.
However, today, a national coalition government, a GNU2, composed of increasingly unpopular parties resting on dwindling social bases would be no guarantee of political stability. Such inter-racial goodwill as there was claimed was exaggerated. But the benefit of that doubt has been squandered by the degeneration of the ANC’s nationalism into one that has alienated Coloureds and Indians, who are depicted today not as fellow slaves and comrades under apartheid but as beneficiaries. This has intensified their understandable but mistaken “not white enough” under white minority rule under apartheid and “not black enough” under black majority rule fears. These fears have been ruthlessly exploited by the EFF and now also by the likes of ActionSA, the Cape Coloured Congress and of course the DA itself.
The experience of the chaos of the 2016 local government coalitions can deepen the scepticism of the masses towards such an arrangement well in advance of it being attempted. Far from representing the “maturing of democracy” – whatever that means – such a government would be one of crisis.
This uncertainty about the future political leadership of the country will likely lead to more Bonapartist measures. This is currently most visible in the increasingly political role of the judiciary and placing strategic elements of the state and economy not just further beyond the democratic control of the masses provided for in the constitution, but above the squabbling of the capitalist politicians too.
Already one commentator has proposed a deviation of the principle of majority rule that coalitions would be based on if no single party can secure one on its own. Citing provisions in the Municipal Structures Act, it is proposed that for election re-runs to be avoided mayoral executive powers be transferred instead to executive committees constituted out of party deployees on a proportional basis. This would have the effect of imposing local government administrations of a type different after the elections than campaigned for.
It is highly uncertain what the outcome of the coalition negotiations will be. Even were they to succeed in patching together coalition agreements, the chaos that marked the NMB, Joburg and Tshwane coalitions of 2016 to 2021, with unseemly horse-trading for positions of influence over portfolios with powers over budgets and tenders paralysing governance, will be replicated across the other metros and the 66 hung councils.
Attempting to disguise the ANC’s impotence, Ramaphosa has warned the other parties that it is quite prepared to face fresh elections. This is a gamble that may not pay off. To work, the ANC would have to at the very least reverse its losses. There is no guarantee that such elections will produce a different result. What reason would there be for voters to change their verdict on these parties 90 days after they punished them so severely?
A period of instability thus lies ahead that may force the undemocratic imposition of local government administrations. It cannot be ruled out that the powers of the provincial government are used to declare local councils dysfunctional. They could be taken over under the pretext that such draconian measures are necessary to “restore stability and ensure service delivery is not disrupted” for the supposed benefit of the people.
Whatever scenario unfolds, the new councils, whether run by provinces or by coalitions, will be operating within the macro-economic policy framework constructed by the ANC government at a national level.
LGE21 coalitions of pro-capitalist parties will be testing out the possibilities of playing the same role at a national level. They will expose the fact that however hostile political relations may have been between them, the DA and the ANC, and their smaller competitors have no fundamental differences. They will be administrations of crisis. If anything, the DA’s role will be to pressure the ANC into stepping up the offensive against the working class. In this, they will be supported by e.g. ActionSA led by Mashaba, the former head of the right-wing Free Market Foundation that both the ANC and DA would welcome into such a coalition. They will be local GNUs of neo-liberal austerity, privatisation, outsourcing, cuts in electricity, water and social services, slave labour schemes, retrenchments and assaults on workers’ rights – with even greater brutality.
The mini-budget delivered by new Finance Minister, Enoch Godongwana, praised by capitalist commentators for “holding the line” on “fiscal consolidation” and “structural reform” of his predecessor, makes that abundantly clear.
Working Class Revolt
However, the plans of the ruling class can likewise be rendered irrelevant by the emergence of the working class as an organised and independent political force. Unable to see the wood for the trees, many in the capitalist media, and even sections of the left, are rubbing their hands in despair at so-called “voter apathy” because unprecedented numbers demonstrated their rejection of the capitalist parties by abstaining.
However, Marxists have always understood that for the working class the right to vote is not divorced from the question of jobs, wages and services – the democratic and social questions are intertwined. It is at the local level, in the bankrupt municipalities and the crisis of service delivery, that the working class sharply experiences the complete failure of voting to make any substantial difference to their day-to-day lives.
Again and again, when asked why they are not voting, people answer in terms of the lack of jobs, lack of housing and poor service delivery. In these elections, millions of working class people understood that voting for any of the parties on offer, and especially for the ANC, would do nothing to transform their living standards. Patronising calls for “voter education” programmes can only amount in practice to lecturing the working class that in the face of their entire experience the sky is not in fact blue! There is sullen anger towards the political elite and a pervasive sense of futility towards voting for them yet again.
While it is clear that many workers are alienated from the parliamentary elections and choices on offer, it would be wrong to try and exaggerate the mood among the masses as representing a conscious, or even semi-conscious, rejection of “bourgeois democracy” as some on the left will be tempted to do. This is an ultra-left analysis confusing the first month of pregnancy with the ninth. It is as mistaken as the claim that the July riots signified the beginning of a workers’ revolution.
Where the working class can see a clear way forward on the electoral plane they will seize it. It was the complete absence of a clear and credible left and class-based alternative which was decisive in the low turnout. Nevertheless, these elections gave a small but important hint of how the working class can move onto the political plane in the future. Whilst the rejection of the capitalist parties in the form of a stay away was the dominant trend, these elections were also historic for the widespread search for an electoral alternative.
Although many of the record 1,546 independent candidates who stood will have included purged former-ANC councillors and other opportunist elements, many will also have been genuine community activists looking to provide an alternative. For example, in Tshwane, the chairperson of an inner-city informal traders’ organisation stood as an independent candidate. In addition, of the 400 parties that contested, a massive 120 were various local community movements, forums, ratepayers associations etc.
In the Free State municipality of Maluti-a-Phofung, the MAP16 Civic Movement – an anti-corruption breakaway from the ANC – finished second with 28% of the vote, taking 20 seats; in Setsoto the Setsoto Service Delivery Forum, home to Andries Tatane, killed live on television by police during a Ficksburg service delivery protest, also finished second with 23% of the vote taking 8 seats. In Mpumalanga’s Lekwa municipality, the Lekwa Community Forum finished second with 19% of the vote and 6 seats and in Steve Tshwete, the Middleburg and Hendrina Residents Front finished fourth with 11% of the vote and 7 seats. In the Eastern Cape, in the Makana municipality, the Makana Citizens Front finished second with 18% of the vote and 5 seats. The Forum 4 Service Delivery won 32 seats across five different provinces. Across the Western Cape, a whole range of different community organisations stood candidates, depriving the DA of a majority in more than one municipality. If spread out evenly, these local challenges covered more than half of SA’s local municipalities.
These organisations are, of course, of a mixed character. In most cases, they appear to have petty bourgeois leaderships that have emerged from groups of well-meaning residents rather than groups of organised workers. They generally lack any political programme beyond being anti-corruption and pro-service delivery. The idea that ‘clean government’ would be adequate to transform the lives of their communities appears dominant. Some are consciously anti-politics and anti-parties. These features are virtually inevitable given their social character, local horizons and isolation. Nevertheless, despite their extremely basic political outlook, they reflect, in a confused way, the search by the working class for a political alternative. Taken together, these initiatives are one of the most significant features of the 2021 local government elections. They reflect the yearning of the masses for an alternative, even if only a minority are actively seeking it at this stage.
Only the organised working class has the social weight to give the search for a political alternative political and organisational cohesion. The responsibility for helping to bring a mass workers’ party into existence remains with the Saftu federation and the forces assembled around the Working Class Summit (WCS).
What these elections tell us about the balance of class forces in society and the subterranean shifts revealed within the masses should fill Saftu members and WCS participants with enormous optimism for pushing ahead with the workers’ party project. The overwhelming rejection of all the major capitalist parties, the historic number of independent candidates, and the explosion of community-based challenges are a resounding answer to the left who argue that the working class is “not ready” for a political party. The stagnation of the EFF vote and its loss of support in previous ‘strongholds’ answer those who see the EFF as an obstacle to building a workers’ party. It also underlines that radical rhetoric alone is not a substitute for a socialist programme to win the loyalty of the working class. A new workers’ party must be a party of struggle, uniting and leading campaigns that can make a real difference in the day-to-day lives of communities.
The leadership of the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party, after frustrating the implementation of Saftu and WCS resolutions in favour of creating a workers’ party, decided to sit these elections out. This led to enormous frustration amongst its activists and led to the Western Cape SRWP, a frequent critic of the national leadership, standing, in any case, in two municipalities. Incredibly, the comrades were able to win a seat in the Theewaterskloof municipality with 767 votes (1.49%). In Saldanha Bay they received 873 votes (1.41%). In the Eastern Cape SRWP members also contested the rural Matatiele (144 votes, 0.14%), Umzimvubu (538 votes, 0.55%) and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela (1,028 votes, 0.84%) municipalities. In the latter, the comrades won a second councillor.
At the time of writing, there is however a total silence from the leadership – indeed the entire party! – about these two councillors. With just 950 paid-up members according to a recent internal report, and clearly already riven with divisions, these elections should be the last flutter of the SRWP leaderships pretence to be the working class alternative. The two new councillors should use their new positions as a platform for campaigning for the creation of a mass workers party and join those forces under the umbrella of the process led by Saftu.
The Working Class Summit is now scheduled to go ahead in March 2022. It needs to reach out to the genuine community activists and working class-based community organisations that contested these elections. They should be approached in a fraternal manner with assurances that they will retain their political and organisational identities whilst encouraged to play a full role in developing the manifesto of a socialist mass workers party and play an active role in its programme of action. The search for WCS participants needs to be driven by the activists and shop stewards of Saftu’s affiliates – they will be able to identify on the ground and in the townships the genuine individuals and organisations from the opportunists. This will enable Saftu to speed up the process of establishing locals uniting organised workers and communities.
The ruling class and the capitalist parties will be despairing at the outcome of these elections. For them, the future is one of fear and uncertainty for the survival of post-1994 capitalist democracy. The working class political vacuum is now extreme. The masses are rejecting the capitalist political status quo and demanding an alternative. Only the working class can lead the way by uniting the struggles of the working class, the poor, the unemployed and the youth.
The emergence of the xenophobic ActionSA, and formations inflaming racial tensions like the Patriotic Alliance and the Cape Coloured Congress, mimicking the role played by the EFF, which the ANC has already demonstrated an inclination to instigate, should serve as a warning to the working class. Huge possibilities lie ahead to cut across the divisions these formations depend upon and to unite the working class. Saftu and the WCS must finally seize the moment and push ahead with the creation of a mass workers party that sets as its goal the struggle for a socialist South Africa, a socialist Africa and a socialist world.