/ 3 September 2015

ANC plans US-style election debates

The ANC has an extensive network of branches and members to draw from at local level
The ANC has an extensive network of branches and members to draw from at local level

When the battle begins for control of the all-important City of Johannesburg in next year’s local government elections, the ANC’s approach will have a distinctly American flavour.

In a bid to retain control of the at-risk city, the ANC plans, for the first time, to involve residents directly – and not just party members – in the selection of its candidates for ward councillors. It will do so through a series of events reminiscent of the very public, and bruising, primary elections favoured by American political parties.

The ANC plans to shortlist four potential candidates in each Johannesburg ward and present them to the communities they seek to represent in town-hall meetings. The party’s decision on the final candidate for each ward will be based on voter reaction.

This approach, the party believes, will make residents feel included in the political process and assure them that councillors will be accountable to residents.

Almost all of the communities that protest about service delivery, regardless of whether the issue is water, housing or electricity, have two complaints in common: they feel excluded from official decisions and have councillors who “forget” their constituents after they are elected.

By the time the ANC finally decided to appoint football boss Danny Jordaan as Nelson Mandela Bay mayor earlier this year, the party had suffered a barrage of rejections from the municipality’s residents.

The alienation was such that the party could no longer convene community meetings and turned to Jordaan in the hope that, as the face of the team that brought the 2010 World Cup to South Africa, his appeal would overcome that animosity.

It is hoped that gauging the community’s approval of candidates before elections will remove the need for such sudden changes.

ANC structures in other municipalities are likely to follow a similar approach of town-hall selection meetings as they face rebellious voters in a number of cities and towns that could fall to opposition control for the first time in more than two decades of democracy.

The Democratic Alliance has made it clear that it wants to wrest control of Tshwane and Johannesburg in Gauteng, and it also has high hopes for Port Elizabeth’s Nelson Mandela Bay metro and the Tlokwe council in Potchefstroom.

Should it succeed on all those fronts, the DA would be in control of the country’s administrative and commercial capitals, which account for a quarter of the national economy.

A shift to the open selection of candidates would be a dramatic turnaround for the ANC, although it still insists on keeping its choices for mayor secret, for fear of being punished by the voter should residents feel the calibre of the chosen candidate is questionable.

ANC Gauteng provincial secretary Hope Papo said the party is not prepared to discuss the names of potential mayoral candidates.

“We can’t determine the names of mayors before we launch our manifesto,” he said. “We are not like the DA, which releases the names of its mayoral candidates before the elections.”

The ANC’s town-hall plan to select candidates is just one of a range of new strategies likely to be tried for the first time when voters go the polls in 2016 in what is expected to be one of the most tense and closely fought elections to date.

Although most of the country’s cities and towns, especially in rural areas, remain safe bets for the ANC, a number of critical councils are at play. In Tshwane, last year’s general election saw ANC support plummet to just 50.96%, and in Johannesburg the ANC vote came in at 53.63%.

In Nelson Mandela Bay, a stronghold of the rebel National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) that was recently expelled from the Cosatu fold, recent by-elections saw the United Democratic Movement unexpectedly secure ward seats.

In East London’s Buffalo City metro, a combination of drought and economic downturn is hitting residents hard. In Limpopo, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has made concerted efforts to organise since its surprisingly impressive showing in the 2014 general elections.

Plus, various uprisings and clashes on university campuses in recent months have added to the evidence presented by service delivery protests of a politically restive citizenry that may be ready to seek change.

On top of that, rapid urbanisation and socioeconomic changes in cities have presented the ANC in particular with a fresh set of challenges, raising the spectre of the party having to rely on rural voters to retain control of the national government.

But the ANC is fighting back, and many factors suggest that it could yet reverse its fortunes in battleground cities.

ANC campaigns head Nomvula Mokonyane told the Mail & Guardian this week that the party has an “urban strategy” that it plans to implement for the 2016 municipal elections. The threat of opposition parties making inroads into its support is pushing the ANC into thinking of custom-made election strategies for next year, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.

“We know we did not perform well in terms of voter turnout during the general elections,” Mokonyane said. “That’s why we need a dedicated strategy for each municipality. We must go and consolidate support in metros that are targeted by the opposition.”

Hosting ward-level primaries is one such mechanism, she said, which will allow the ANC to “encourage inclusivity and transparency”.

ANC Johannesburg regional secretary Dada Morero said the party’s branches will nominate four potential candidates to present to the relevant community, where they will work on convincing voters of their suitability to lead.

“They will explain themselves to their own ward and, based on the response, we will make appointments,” Morero said.

The M&G reported in April that the ANC’s draft guidelines for municipal elections include potential questions for public interviews such as what the prospective candidate has done for the community, what they see as the main problems the ANC must address, how the candidate would contribute to strengthening the council if elected and what skills the candidate would bring to the council.

Local government elections are notorious for low voter registration and turnout, but analysts polled this week said having ward candidates vying for the position, and residents feeling they have ownership of the eventual candidate, could help mobilise enough voters to have a significant impact on results.

And the effect could go beyond individual wards, they said. Voters are unlikely to turn out when they consider their wards already lost to a party they do not support, but this costs their party the proportional representation benefits that such “losing votes” could bring. Supporting underdog candidates in lost wards could add the fractions of percentage points that could benefit parties in the final overall tally.

But to succeed in its strategy the ANC would also need to train its candidates to communicate effectively with residents. A report by the South African Cities Network in June said local government is too slow in catching up with a rapidly changing world when it comes to using information technology.

“For government to remain relevant and to ensure that they will be able to communicate with the up-and-coming consumer base, they need to effect change quickly and efficiently,” the report said, also noting that local governments face “a public trust problem”.

“The public perception is very low and for the system to work, for consumers to pay for services and get the services they are entitled to, local government and municipalities need to build consumers’ confidence.”

Though some municipalities are governed by the opposition, this finding is largely an indictment of the ANC, which is still in control of most local councils across the country.

Mokonyane said voters become upset with the ANC “once we focus on ourselves and forget to provide services. Comrades forget about service delivery and focus on who becomes the next leader.”

Time will tell whether appointing Danny Jordaan mayor of Nelson Mandela Bay was a clever move. (Carl de Souza, AFP)

Instead of worrying about what other political parties are doing, the ANC should be worried about “the attitude of the voters”, said Mokonyane.

“We forget to deal with [delivering] services to our people. Once we miss the opportunity to deal with the character of the ANC, then we have a problem.”

Incumbency is a double-edged sword, giving the ANC a track record to point to in its campaigning while at the same time raising the spectre of dissatisfied residents voting for change.

Yet the ANC still has numerous advantages over the competition.

The cities likely to be the most contested next year differ widely from one another and ward by ward, suggesting that over-arching national strategies may be less important than hyperlocal campaigns at the level of individual streets. With its extensive network of branches and its large membership pool, the ANC will be able to knock on more doors and organise more micro-events than all the other parties combined.

That reach will also give the party an advantage in the critical process of mobilising voters to head to the polls, as will its financial muscle. Tough economic times have brought speculation that parties may limit their spending on next year’s local elections in order to amass war chests for the 2019 national elections.

Still, advertising campaigns and postering will be important determinants of registration and turnout, and although all political parties are secretive about their finances, the ANC is believed to be capable of raising significantly more money than the DA could.

At the same time, not all the problems the ANC faced in last year’s general elections will bedevil it in 2016. Analysts expect the “Zuma factor” – referring to ANC supporters who stayed away from the polls in 2014 because of disaffection with the Zuma administration rather than with the party – to be smaller at a local government level.

Serious contestation may also serve the ANC well, with supporters who fear a change in the status quo feeling a pressure to vote that they did not experience in the national elections the ANC was sure to win outright, albeit, as it turned out, with a reduced majority.

And although the youth vote and the extent to which the EFF can harness it remains a wild card – having made the EFF the third-biggest party in Parliament by a considerable margin – not everyone is convinced it will be significant.

In South Africa, as all over the world, young voters have to be dragged kicking and screaming to municipal elections, being more unwilling than any group other than the aged (which is comparatively small in number) to register, travel to the polls and queue if necessary.

“Even in national elections, which benefit from a great deal of media attention and a national campaign, [young people’s] turnout levels are markedly lower than older voters,” said Robert Mattes of the University of Cape Town’s political studies department.

Asked if first-time voter numbers could surprise in 2016, in light of the surge in political activism on campuses in recent months, Mattes cautioned against giving too much weight to “what could be a very small number of students on elite campuses”.

Although young people who support the EFF – or the DA or other parties, especially as a pushback against EFF campaigning – could serve to mobilise students on university campuses in ways not previously seen, there is little evidence that they can similarly mobilise broader communities at street level.

Research by Mattes and others has found that young people are poorly integrated into their communities, and that the more politically thoughtful among them are even less connected to their neighbours than the politically apathetic are.

In addition, an electoral analysis by economist Paul Berkowitz has found strong support for the EFF in Gauteng among Sepedi and Setswana first-language speakers and migrants from Limpopo, suggesting even greater isolation.

Other indicators, such as the DA’s shock win in student representative council elections at the University of Fort Hare in the Eastern Cape in May, also suggest that the visibility of the EFF on various campuses may be greater than its actual support.

But, with the party’s youth wing still in disarray, ANC support among young people does not seem likely to provide any surprises.