The African National Congress is fighting its toughest election yet. The ruling partyâ€™s monolithic hold on power is showing distinct cracks, as strongholds have splintered from Khutsong in Gauteng, where residents have staged running battles with authorities, to Khayelitsha in the Western Cape, where a feisty group of independents has challenged for power and Matatiele in KwaZulu-Natal where the former ANC mayor has formed a breakaway party.
Three trade unions affiliated to the partyâ€™s ally, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), have refused to campaign for the ANC.
Cosatu itself gave lukewarm support to the ANCâ€™s campaign, as did the South African Communist Party. Communist leaders planned to stand as independents in several provinces, while the party faced a strong lobby to go it alone in the poll.
The ANC is in no danger of losing next Wednesdayâ€™s election, and most voters will probably still vote for it. But the party has lost the unquestioning struggle loyalty and the patience of its grassroots, which have returned it to power with large majorities since 1994.
The signs are that support will increasingly be linked to government performance.
The fractures in Khutsong, Khayelitsha and Matatiele suggest that local supporters will be less tolerant of Pretoriaâ€™s penchant for high-handed, technocratic governance and Luthuli Houseâ€™s imposition of candidates.
Khutsong is in flames because the community rejected relocation to the North West province, while Khayelitshaâ€™s independents went solo after the ANC head office imposed candidates.
To counter internal opposition, ANC president Thabo Mbeki has launched an unprecedented charm offensive, criss-crossing the country in the past week in a bid to bolster ANC support in areas where it is under threat: in Cape Town, in Soshanguve — a stronghold where the party faced street revolts earlier this year — and in KwaZulu-Natal, where it wants to exploit the crisis in the Inkatha Freedom Party and take back municipalities it lost five years ago.
And in another unprecedented step, Mbeki is giving a series of interviews to the Sunday press.
Local government is the ANCâ€™s Achilles heel — polls show that support for and trust in national government are much higher than on the local sphere.
Rampant municipal corruption and maladministration have hurt the party; since the start of its campaign, Mbeki has sought to distance the ANC from its own councillors.
The ANC has purged its lists — six of every 10 councillors stand to lose their jobs next week. In Langa this week Mbeki publicly cautioned councillors they would not be able to sit back in their posts.
Mbeki has constantly sought to shift the focus to the ANCâ€™s national leadership. He has been used to front the campaign, even in the large metros.
The strategy may have had some impact. In Soshanguve on Monday, most people stopped their daily activities to cheer Mbekiâ€™s convoy. Samuel Hlongwane, a retrenched factory worker turned street vendor, was one of the few people who did not. “Iâ€™m pleased that Mbeki is here to see and hear what our councillors are doing. They are doing absolutely nothing for us,” he said gloomily. He complained of corrupt councillors who gave tenders to friends and family.
Mbeki, again seeking to make the connection between national and local, made a point of introducing ward candidates personally to give them legitimacy.
A disgruntled Queen Mahlangu in Soshanguveâ€™s Block X rebuked ward 27 councillor William Maluleke as he tried to explain the causes of slow delivery. “Shut up! Iâ€™m talking to the big boss, not you. We thought the boers were bad, but you are worse,” she said furiously.
“The councillors donâ€™t want to talk to us. We vote for them, they get the money and then they leave us alone,” she told Mbeki.
Centre for Policy Studies researcher Ebrahim Fakir remarked that historically voting patterns in South Africa “are a form of racial census … But this year people are likely to make an instrumental decision based on what incremental gains they can make through their vote.”
This could result in a significantly higher turnout at the polls next week. A Human Sciences Research Council report commissioned by the Independent Electoral Commission on voter participation found voter turnout could be as high as 60%, compared with 48% in 2000.
“The ANC is not be going to be significantly weakened, but there is a clear indication from the electorate that its legitimacy and credibility is not never-ending,” Fakir said.
The Khutsong upheavals and the Matatiele Constitutional Court challenge were indicative of an electorate that “is taking on the bull that is the ANC”, said Protas Mdlala, an independent political analyst.
At issue in both areas is the perception that the party has circumvented democratic procedures, such as community consultation. “The ANC councillors came to us and said they wanted to hold a meeting to register people for an HIV workshop,” complained Kali Mokoena, a Matatiele resident who travelled to Johannesburg last week for the Constitutional Court hearing.
“They told us we must write our names and ID numbers on a piece of paper to register our presence. Then they took the paper back to the government as proof that we supported Matatieleâ€™s move into the Eastern Cape.”
By the governmentâ€™s own admission, local government is teetering on the brink of collapse, with some councils spending less than 30% of their capital budgets. This has sparked about 900 delivery protests over the past two years, according to figures supplied by Minister of Safety and Security Charles Nqakula.
National government has implemented drastic rescue plans, including Project Consolidate, to bolster the capacity of the worst-run councils and has passed a raft of legislation, including the Municipal Finance Management Act, to force improvements in local government administration.
A further sign of growing political ferment is the fact that 97 political parties will contest next weekâ€™s election — a 20% growth from 2000. There is a 50% increase in the number of candidates competing.
This year many independents have grouped themselves into parties and civic organisations to wield more power. Nearly all these have been formed in ANC strongholds.
Fakir said that although independent organisations might not have the institutional infrastructure “they touch peopleâ€™s political frustrations; they are connected and they have a deep penetration. People have seen that there is an alternative political project.”
Cosatu also hinted in a press release following its central executive committee (CEC) meeting last week that some of its affiliates opposed voting. It said: “A particular difficulty for Cosatu is that some of our unions — the South African Municipal Workers Union, the South African Democratic Teachers Union and the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union — have serious grievances about how some parts of government have handled collective bargaining and workersâ€™ conditions.”
Cosatu has been visibly less active in campaigning for the ANC, and several Cosatu leaders confirmed that this was a symptom of deeper strains in the tripartite alliance.
“We noted that 2005 was perhaps the most difficult year from the point of divisions in [the alliance], in particular the ANC,” said the CEC statement. “On the surface the main cause of debates … was the handling of the Jacob Zuma affair. Yet this was a symptom of underlying divisions over the evolution of the democratic movement since 1994. These centre on declining mass mobilisation and participation in decision-making in the ANC and the state, which led to the sidelining of the alliance and many other activists.”