/ 12 June 2024

Good governance wins votes: The one lesson the ANC seemingly ignored

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African National Congress President Cyril Ramaphosa shares a light moment with NEC members after announcing that the ANC will seek a "unity" government. (Photo by Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images)

After several months of hard campaigning by political parties, South Africans were able to cast their votes on Thursday. Much of the discourse around the election centred around whether the ANC would lose or retain its majority. Most cautious observers anticipated that it would fall one or two points shy of an outright majority. Well, how wrong they were. 

Not only did the party lose its majority, it shed 3.6 million votes, representing a 17.4 point decline to 40.1% from 57.5% in 2019: no doubt, a psychological blow for the organisation. But, contrary to expectations, the leadership has taken collective responsibility, and been candid about the reasons for the poor showing, some of which were captured by the party’s secretary general Fikile Mbalula, who, during a briefing to the media, said that “the results also showed people’s concerns about shortcomings in governance and delivery”. 

This should be no surprise, as successive declines in three elections prior to this one were enough evidence of the correlation between governance outcomes and electoral results. A case in example is the party’s increase in vote share from 62.5% in 1994 to 69.7% in 2004 following sustained improvements in the material circumstances of citizens through deliberate and efficient service delivery.

It was a simple formula to understand: when voters saw an improvement in their socio-economic conditions through good governance, the party was rewarded in the polls. Where they did not, the opposite happened. Initially, the ANC realised and appreciated this fact, hence it once placed an emphasis on governing well and consistently across the board. But somewhere along the line it lost this appreciation — and it has paid a heavy price for it. 

The ANC: A tale of two sides

Despite the difficulties in governing a country as complex and deeply embedded with structural inequalities as ours, the ANC, through a mixture of political skill and technical governance, has been able to make serious inroads in providing service delivery to citizens.

Take one look at the Census 2022 data and you will see marked improvements in the number of people who now have access to formal housing, water and electricity. But delve deeper into the data and you will see that much of this delivery was achieved in the first 15 years of our democracy, through a year-on-year increase in overall public expenditure by the first three government administrations that brought about high levels of economic growth and job creation. It is during that time where the ANC could be truly said to be delivering on its promise of  “a better life for all”. 

But instead of building on this, the party decided to take a back seat. In the following years fewer homes and schools were built, not in keeping with the growing population, municipal infrastructure was either periodically maintained, or not at all, crime rose to unsustainable levels, and economic growth stagnated.

Part of why the erosion of these gains occurred is that the culture of delivery and political accountability did not fully take hold within the organisation. This much is captured in its 2001 Through the Eye of the Needle document — which identified the corrupt practices taking place during the election of leaders all the way down to the branch level, and the decline in the quality and moral standing of its members — and other organisational reports released since then.

One may ask how such issues crept up in an organisation led by a collective that had seemingly mastered the art of statecraft. Different cases can be made to explain this, but the clearest one is that more time and focus was spent on running and strengthening the state (itself a virtue) than what was happening within the organisation. That, coupled with growing tensions among the leadership, created a hole within which someone like former president Jacob Zuma could exploit. 

A loss of organisational identity 

The issue with the ascension of Zuma was, first, the factional manner in which it occurred, and second, the lack of direction he brought with him. It is not as if he rose on the basis of a broad new vision for the party or country. To this day, it remains unclear what his policy agenda was. If it was as clear as some of his supporters argue, why did he not implement it? That same lack of direction spread through the ANC, and defined it for his entire term. 

This inevitably permeated into all levels of the government, diminishing the quality of the public service. Instances of maladministration and misappropriation of public funds became more commonplace. Nowhere was this more keenly felt than at the local government level. 

Late last year the department of cooperative governance and traditional affairs released a report that showed the deterioration of the capacity of local government, to the extent that 163 of the 257 municipalities were reported to be under financial distress, while 66 were said to be dysfunctional. The collapse of local government has been felt on the ground, with only 30% of respondents expressing satisfaction with municipal governance on the Good Governance Africa 2024 Governance Performance Index. 

To be fair, the fact that 30% expressed satisfaction also tells us that it was not that the party stopped governing altogether in this period — rather, that this became less of a priority. 

The hollowing out of state and organisational capacity and heightened factionalism between leaders during that period left an unenviable task for the new administration led by President Cyril Ramaphosa to resolve. To his credit, better governance and service delivery have been at the forefront of his agenda. Unfortunately for citizens, his administration has been unable to implement this agenda and fully arrest the decline of the state’s capabilities. A rebuild is certainly under way, with the auditor general reporting an overall improvement in audit outcomes of both departments and public entities in its 2022-2023 report, but it is yet to translate into tangible results for citizens.

Where to from here? 

There are a few concerning trends the party has to consider if it wants to secure its long-term electoral future. The first one is its loss of support in its rural strongholds, even in provinces where uMkhonto WeSizwe party did not fare well. The other is that this group of mostly older voters is shrinking. This should not be taken lightly by its leaders as this collective has disproportionately contributed to the ANC’s majorities while its share of the vote in urban areas has steadily declined from 2009 (the party has achieved a vote share of 32.5% in the metropolitan areas for this election).

These two factors, along with the fact that the party has limited time to bring about meaningful reforms in the state that will translate to positive socio-economic outcomes before the 2029 election, and the tendency of our electoral system of proportional representation to fragment the vote so as to bring about coalitions, make it highly unlikely that the ANC will ever receive a national majority again. 

We truly have entered a new political reality.

There are several actions the organisation can take from here on out to begin addressing some of the problems. One specific way is to look into strengthening its governance capacity in the short to medium term through the establishment of the touted monitoring and evaluation unit within the Secretarial Office, that can draw up a M&E framework that identifies targets for “renewal” that need to be achieved from the national to branch level, how they will be monitored and reported on, and the interventions required where shortcomings are identified. 

The same framework could also be used to regularly monitor the performance of its public representatives from all levels of government against key performance indicators, provide what consequence management should be taken where failures are recorded so as to enforce accountability (easier said than done), and solutions on how to improve the coordination between  regional and national deployees. 

Having not attained a majority, the party leadership is engaged in discussions with other parties to form a government. In deciding who to partner with, the negotiation team should consider how such an arrangement would create certainty and prioritise stability in the country to allow for an improvement in service delivery outcomes and overall governance. Attention should also be placed on whether a potential partner or partners will competitively bring out the best of its technical abilities.

With that being said, it is clear that addressing the ANC’s multiple challenges will require time, hard bargaining, compromise and resolve amongst its leaders. No actions can be glossed over, because voters need to see and feel the effect of organisational change and the corresponding effect it has on the performance of the government. They need to see that their leaders understand that effective governance promotes transparency and fosters trust among stakeholders as well as citizens. 

The choice then is straightforward for the ANC: serve the people well and you will be rewarded. Do the opposite, and run the risk of electoral irrelevance down the line.

Mokheseng Moema is a political and public policy analyst.