Interim notes on the South African local elections

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Our Co-editor SJ Cooper-Knock shared some early thoughts on the local election results in South Africa. This post was written on Saturday morning, more analysis will follow after the final election results are announced.


Saturday Morning, 6th August 2016

Votes are still being tallied from South Africa’s local elections on Wednesday but one thing is clear: the ANC has suffered its worst vote since the transition from apartheid in 1994.

picture 1 elections SJ
Credit:, accessed at 9am on 06.08.2016


At the time of writing, the ANC had won 56% of the votes counted, the DA had secured 25% and the EFF had 8% of the vote. This is the first time that the ANC will have earned less than 60% of the vote. Regionally, there have also been some tectonic shifts, with political analysts focusing in on three arenas: Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay.

Picture 2 elections SJ
Credit:, accessed at 9am on 06.08.2016


The DA has long coveted Johannesburg, which sits in affluent province of Gauteng. Eager to build a regional base beyond the Western Cape, the party hoped that black middle class voters could be wooed by the promise of economic growth and technical competence. Capturing the business capital of the country would represent an important symbolic and strategic victory for the opposition. Mandela Bay is also a painful symbolic loss for the government. Previously a government stronghold, Zuma referred to Metro Municipality as the ‘home of the ANC’ during in the last local elections.

How should we understand these emergent results? In part, this is a story about Zuma. Although the President’s face reappeared on election posters, it was absent from the posters and t-shirts earlier this year that were pressing people to register. It seemed that the party propagandists were starting to echo the sentiment long held by leading figures in Gauteng: Zuma was a liability.

The story of Zuma’s rise to power is inseparable from a series of scandals that served to secure rather than slacken his grip on power, much to the frustration of his detractors. A skilful political operator, he survived and thrived in the midst of these early battles. But Zuma’s authority has been seriously injured in the on-going fights around publicly funded upgrades to his house in Nkandla; his firing of Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene; and his cosy relationship with the powerful Gupta family. Whilst some in the party argue that will Zuma recover, a growing number fear such injuries are politically fatal.

DA leader Mmusi Maimane has been keen to frame the election as a ‘referendum on Jacob Zuma’ and the ‘political future’ of the country but this verdict ignores two important factors.

First, the elections cannot be read as a verdict on national politics writ small. Local politics swarms inexorably around the figure of the local councillor. Voters on Wednesday cast two ballots. One was a party vote, which was used to elect PR councillors from party lists. The other was a direct vote for a ward councillor, who may or may be affiliated to a party.

It is ward councillors who have drawn the attention and the ire of South African voters in recent years, particularly in the country’s impoverished townships and informal settlements. Councillors canvas for votes by promising to deliver everything from housing to employment in order to make good on the ANC’s pledge to secure a ‘Better Life For All’.

In reality, as recent studies have shown, the continued political visibility of these councillors is at odds with their decreasing leverage in local government. Councillors remain formidable figures, thanks to their capacity to elicit fear and favour. But those hoping to systematically obtain rights and recognition are left frustrated. It is this local face of the ANC that many previously loyal voters were turning against in the recent elections.

Second, Maimane’s statement ignores the rise of independent candidates, who demonstrates that this ‘referendum’ is intended to sanction the ANC, not to anoint another party as successor. That message is confirmed if we look at Gauteng, one of the key battlegrounds of this election. Across the country as a whole, electoral engagement has been impressive: the number of voters registered has increased by 11% on the last local elections. But voter turnout in Gauteng is a dramatic 22% lower than five years ago. This echoes a trend we saw in the general election in 2014, where voter registration declined in ANC strongholds.

The slow erosion of government authority is not in anyone’s best interests. The knife-edge on which politics rests is already too literal in many areas, where paranoid political elites lean on a combination of containment and coercion to protect or secure their positions.

The recent rise in political assassinations has largely been attributed to divisions within the ANC, which has been fractured by divisions ricocheting from the national level and mixing with local struggles over power and position. The ANC, however, is not the only party in the country riven by such divides. Nor should we ignore the violence faced by citizens who mobilise against the political powers that be, which the police have either administered or ignored.

Over the next few hours and days we will start to which parties and coalitions will shape the local political landscape for the next five years. But South Africa’s poorest citizens remain unconvinced that any political constellation on offer will enable them to realise the dignity and democracy at the heart of the post-apartheid promise.

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