Extrapolating from Metsimaholo the ANC better buck up

The recent hotly contested municipal by-elections in Metsimaholo Free State were significant for being the first that the disenchanted South African Communist Party (SACP) contested separately from its old ANC alliance partner.

While the results are specific to a particular context the extrapolations of the implications of prevailing sentiment are profound for what the ANC might face in national and provincial polls. The polls provide a fascinating case study in shifting political sentiment.

In the Metsimaholo by-election 393 candidates representing 15 political parties contested the 21 ward and 21 proportional representation (PR) seats with fierce lobbying by provincial and national leaders. The council was dissolved midyear after its "hung" council proved incapable of passing a budget.

The results have done little to meet the need for a coalition to govern Metsimaholo control of which is still in the process of being horse-traded. But for analysts ballot outcomes give an intriguing indication of shifting support for the ANC.

Preliminary results should be a concern for Luthuli House given that the municipality headquartered in Sasolburg can be seen as a typical urban former stronghold.

It should be recalled that there were (strongly opposed) proposals to merge the municipality with neighbouring Ngwathe to form a Category A metro municipality.

The extent of decline in support for the ANC in Metsimaholo (dropping by 10.5 percentage points from 45.1% to 34.5%) from August last year to last week is staggering albeit largely through a loss in proportional representation support (suggesting voter disillusion across the board rather than in particular wards).

In the municipality last year the ANC won 15 of its 16 wards with a majority. This year while it retained these wards only three were won by a majority.

This loss of confidence shows up in the allocation of PR seats.

Should similar erosion in support be seen across the board in SA (a vast and simplistic assumption but useful to illustrate the potential significance of Metsimaholo’s results) the ANC would no longer hold a national majority.

Interestingly the DA’s support also slipped (albeit only slightly from 28.92% in 2016 to 26.3% with a six-point decline in the suburbs where the Freedom Front Plus is estimated to have increased its support by four points to account for 10% of suburban votes ahead of the ANC’s 9% and the EFF’s 5%).

Again while Metsimaholo is unique it is intriguing to ponder the implications of this level of erosion of support in other provinces as well as the EFF’s gain.

The most useful comparisons are probably the Free State and Gauteng where the ANC would represent only 55% and 41% of voters respectively (if elections were held today with an identical erosion in support similar to that experienced in Metsimaholo).

Using the same trends the EFF would be the official opposition in North West and Limpopo and would come close to contesting this position in Mpumalanga.

The DA would continue to have its clear majority in the Western Cape and the ANC would only have a perilous majority hold in KwaZulu-Natal the Northern Cape and North West.

Particular and unique dynamics would come into play and quite significant variables are likely to change for all political parties before the 2019 national and provincial elections but the Metsimaholo trends (should there be a further splintering of the ANC vote through contestation by the SACP) are truly fascinating.

While some analysts have argued that the SACP had fared "dismally" (in that it failed to gain a single ward) this misses the bigger picture of PR seats that were lost to a splinter of the ANC.

Arguably the SACP was at a considerable disadvantage to the EFF in that it had not contested elections before and voters censuring the ANC may have been less confident about the SACP’s opposition to the ANC (as opposed to the EFF which made it clear it would work with other opposition parties — no matter how unpalatable it found them — to keep the ANC out of power).

For the ANC in many municipalities and provinces further erosion of support is a risk it simply cannot take. The party’s electoral conference will have to focus on unity and "self-correction" if it is to avoid this fate.