/ 6 September 2016

Were the 2016 local government elections the beginning of ‘politics by consent’?

The panel at the M&G Post-elections Critical Thinking Forum: Moderator Ralph Matheka
The panel at the M&G Post-elections Critical Thinking Forum: Moderator Ralph Matheka

Despite the legacy issues that continue to plague the ANC, the outcomes of the 2016 municipal elections mark a massive shift facing South Africans. The impact has been far more deafening than the pre-election grumbles about whether or not they would be free and fair or how the ANC would address its diminishing support — often involving pessimistic social media discussions suggesting devious vote rigging.

The substantial number of ANC voters who decided to abstain — rather than vote for other parties’ promises of change — has left the ANC punch-drunk and in need of serious medicine if it will ever recover.

Opening the Mail & Guardian and Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung Critical Thinking Forum in Sandton, Johannesburg on August 29 2016, moderator Ralph Matheka, head of political economy at the Mapungubye Institute for Strategic Reflection, described the post-election scenario as one where there has been a shock to the system, with even the EFF shocked at getting 10% and now being able to throw its weight around.

“It is a legal and mechanical positive and the 2016 elections spring many new tendencies,” said Sy Mamabolo, deputy chief electoral officer for the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC).

“The first issue noteworthy in the preparations for the elections was the registration of voters and there are now a record 26.3-million eligible voters — an 11% increase from the 2011 elections.”

“Close to 80% of those registering for the first time were under the age of 29 and interest in the elections brought in huge registrations by those we call young persons,” continued Mamabolo. “This says to us that people largely remain engaged in the democratic process in this country; otherwise there would have been disengagement.

Gauteng has the highest number of voters with 6.2-million registered, followed by KwaZulu-Natal with 5.4-million, the Eastern Cape with 3.3-million and the Western Cape with 3-million. Some 69% of all voters are in these four provinces. Around 55% of voters (14.5-million) are women, with 45% (11.9-million) being men. The voters’ roll has grown by 42.5% since the first municipal elections in 2000 and almost 50% of voters are under the age of 40.

Dangerous connotations

Mamabolo raised that “Another topical issue ahead of registration was that interest in these elections was in part due to what happened in the previous elections and the imperative was that these be seen as nothing less than free and fair.”

He said that questions were raised around “linking of an address to the franchise of a person, which was argued as a dangerous thing because an address has political and social connotations.

“There are citizens in many areas without a fixed address and linking a right to vote [to having an address] means more people’s votes could be challenged.

“It is significant, however, that of the 26-million registered, 15-million went to the polls and voted, which is a profound number of people to participate in an electoral process. I believe we are poised for an increase in election turnout, both in 2019 and beyond. It can only grow from here.

“The Electoral Commission set out to integrate advances in electronic technologies with the process. Special votes could be applied for via SMS and there were also online and mobile apps which enabled voters to see if they were registered and follow the results for their wards.

“Another issue raised was special votes, with opponents saying these could be used to rig the elections, but in my view, special votes are very important and no citizen should lose the right to vote because of infirmity or special circumstances, such as the police keeping polling stations and votes safe and the media covering the event. These special votes represented less than 1% of the votes.

“Online candidate registration was another innovation which is probably the first on the continent and one of the first in the world. Some 61 000 candidates registered online.”

Consolidation and continuity

“The department of communications spoke about turnout, but the noise was really about the turnout in certain areas and the impact this would have,” continued Ebrahim Fakir, political analyst. “There is also nothing stopping the IEC from giving a percentage of age in the demographics [of voters], which gives us perspective. This raises questions […] including the question of investment into the elections.

“[Not having data] on areas of investment by the citizen and how government can get a level of return makes it hard to get feedback in terms of government by coercion, rather than consent. Zimbabwe is a prime example of a government that cannot lead by consent, so it uses coercion.”

Fakir said that three stories have emerged from these elections, the first two being the evidence of consolidation and continuity, citing the DA in the Western Cape as being a good example of a party not only enhancing its control, but managing to wrest power away for the first time in the previously ANC stalwart municipality of Beaufort West.

The third story in these elections is change, specifically gains in the townships and the ANC’s loss of ground.

“In suburban areas, the DA demonstrated a strong hold. Voter turnout was often in excess of 75%, most of which homogenously voted for the DA or a specialist party,” continued Fakir. “In the townships it was a little more subdued and many decided to stay away. It is very interesting that patterns of political support are suggesting trends of racial polarisation.

“I believe the real growth is in the DA.

“Going into the elections, many contended that this was a test on whether we can stick to and play the rules, but there were over 20 political murders in the lead-up and what we yet know about the other political murders. Post-election compliance and impunity remain a very important aspect.”

According to Professor Susan Booysen, Wits School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand, “Given the gradual sliding scale of the elections and how they have become increasingly contested over time, this is still not a tsunami or an earthquake. There are many who could identify the need [for other parties] to consolidate and grow.

“The predominant narrative is what has become of the ANC. Yes, it has some good people, but it has become like a faction. The character of the ANC has changed and the president and all the shenanigans contributed to loss of support, although few of us and few in the ANC expected that much effective contestation that subdued the ANC into the loss of major municipalities.

“In terms of the pace of change over the past election, the ANC now also faces the possibility of going below 50%. It was the multi-pronged attack that was the ANC’s undoing while the DA never slipped back, but has steadfastly grown.

“The two lines are divergent — and then came the EFF, and if were not for them the ANC would not have suffered such a loss.

“While parties have suffered some ideological dilution, this does not matter at municipal level — service delivery is the thing. Anti-corruption has been highlighted. I think we should be analysing closer the stay-away votes. People don’t just divorce but maybe stay away as a form of trial separation.

“The ANC is now on a fight back but people can choose whether to stay away or join another opposition party. This is a fascinating transitional period in our politics.”

Quantity versus quality

Dr Somadoda Fikeni, director of vice-chancellor’s special projects and advisor to the vice-chancellor/principal of the University of South Africa, concurred with Professor Booysen, saying: “I think it is a moment that has changed our politics forever and a change of symbolism. Now, when the president flies to the Union Buildings, he lands in DA [territory], in Cape Town he is in DA territory and when he flies to his home in Natal he is in IFP territory.

“ANC membership swelled to over one million and its patronage was embedded in terms of quantity versus quality. The attraction to the ANC is due to tenders. At functions, as people extract their business card, conveniently falls out their ANC membership card. The psychology had taken it seriously that the ANC would be in power for a long time.

“Liberation only usually has a window of 25 years, otherwise either there has been service delivery or leadership is coercive. In most post-independence countries in Africa, opposition grows in the suburbs but ruling parties use the rural areas. Our difference is our urban population is much higher than in other countries.

“Educated, clever blacks are urbane, working, pay taxes and are exposed to conveniences and the media. They insist on services, whether working, rich or middle class. In rural areas, 80 to 90% are unemployed and their social grants become important. The opposition knew they could not tackle the ANC directly and chose to target the metros, taking advantage of the downward slope of the ANC since 2004.

“The ANC believed it would never lose its majority, but opposition and parliament cooperated on Nkandla and other issues and learned to work together. What we are seeing is the return of politics in identity, race relations and social media relations.

“The big story now is [for] the ANC to show, post-elections, new colours — self-renewal or self-destruction,” Fikeni concluded.