Stress tests for political blocs

THE local government elections have ushered in several significant new changes for SA’s democracy with greater plurality and probable instability at the 27 "hung" councils where no political party secured a majority of votes.

Although the results have been finalised another nail-biting period of intransigence looms as the country awaits the outcomes of intense horse-trading between political parties to decide on coalitions. These need to be completed within the next fortnight.

No party conceded to this likelihood before the elections but now almost 13% of municipalities will necessitate a series of agreements between political foes. These might be individual or in-principle with the only early indication of coalitions being formed on principle being the avowal by the EFF and DA not to work with the ANC.

The EFF may reverse this undertaking depending on the offers placed on its table especially on the allocation of land. Julius Malema has observed that "in politics there are no permanent friends and there are no permanent enemies" so while it may seem incongruous for the market-friendly DA to band together with revolutionary EFF local government might provide a meeting ground with basic service delivery being a common goal for rival parties.

The ANC is a more likely ally for the EFF but EFF voters might feel betrayed should their vote essentially bolster a party on which they have turned their backs.

Coalitions are most likely in some of the largest municipalities. Only Cape Town now ironically the most securely won metro has previous experience of coalition governance. With only half the metros won outright coalition-run metros will change the face of governance in urban SA.

The results may also change the character of the ANC which no longer represents a monolith of support despite retaining a majority nationally. Winning by 54% is an uncomfortably narrow margin and a bruising 9% decline from the 2011 local polls.

While the ANC’s leadership has emphasised that it managed to secure a higher number of ward councillor victories than in previous elections its proportional representation erosion reflects a significant loss of support.


THE DA’s support grew only 3% nationally. It is the EFF that is a key contributor to the ANC’s significant decline as it captured 8% of national votes. The EFF’s rise was acutely felt in most but not all metros. In Cape Town eThekwini and Nelson Mandela Bay it did not achieve more than 5%. In Gauteng’s metros where the ANC registered an average 14% loss the EFF secured 11% of Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni’s votes and 12% in Tshwane.

The crucial question is whether a shift away from the ANC as many critics of the ruling party would have it reflects censure of its performance at a municipal level or whether voters were guided by issues of identity politics and concerns about national politics.

The municipalities where the ANC faced the greatest opposition were arguably performing reasonably well given the significant pressure of in-migration. Johannesburg and Tshwane have been growing by roughly 100000 residents each a year — and whichever party governs these cities will continue to face serious delivery challenges.

Conversely (and ironically) some of the worst-performing municipalities on a range of indicators including backlogs underspending poor audit outcomes and protest activity — including Port St Johns and Mbizana — still showed robust majority support for the ANC.

In these rural areas loyal voters still perceive the ANC to be their best delivery agent. Malema suggests that the provision of social grants — an issue outside local government’s domain — helped to retain party loyalty.

The disapproval of issues such as state capture and a belief that corruption and nepotism at a national level translates into patronage and inefficient delivery at local level may have swung voters to the DA’s message that "it’s time to vote for change". It has become apparent that once voters reach this point of impatience with national politics attempts to send in turnaround specialists such as Danny Jordaan to Nelson Mandela Bay may not be sufficient to stem the tide of disapproval about mismanagement and corruption.

Aggregate delivery statistics belie the issue of marginalisation on the boundaries of metros and cities where many thousands of new arrivals reside in squalid informal settlements in an environment of high unemployment. This year almost four out of 10 service delivery protests registered on our Municipal Hotspots Monitor related to the need for housing. The specific focus on housing by the EFF perhaps accounts for its significant entry into the local government arena.

The test for the EFF in its king-making role will be to find a political party that is able to deliver on the very complex task of providing basic services especially to informal settlements and to secure land for housing that does not perpetuate apartheid patterns of economic exclusion. It will be interesting to see whether coalitions might present too much of a risk for the EFF "brand"; with the harsh complexities of eradicating the bucket system in Nelson Mandela Bay for instance compromising its militant demands for the immediate eradication of the system.


NOT all urban centres have turned from the ANC. Buffalo City while experiencing a recent uptick in service delivery protests recorded only a 9% fall in support for the ANC.

While protesting communities will not necessarily always take their disapproval to the ballot box this does not mean that elections and protests are not related. The Municipal IQ Municipal Hotspots Monitor showed that despite an uptick in protests earlier in 2016 the past two months saw a drop-off relative to previous years’ mid-year months (this does not include recent protests objecting to councillor candidates).

This conforms to previous election years either local or national/provincial. It appears that communities protest as part of an election cycle — between voting — and therefore use protests as a way in which to hold elected officials to account. Electioneering which affords communities a louder voice mitigates the need for protest activity.

This trend along with the healthy turnout suggests that democracy is alive and well. A democracy dominated by two or three parties is typical of many well-functioning democratic societies.

The coalitions that will take control of increasingly contested areas should be mindful that a far less forgiving electorate has begun to flex its muscles and that delivery is of paramount importance in the term ahead.