The 2021 local government elections (LGEs) were remarkable for many reasons, none more significant than the birth of an era where the African National Congress (ANC) exists with less than 50 percent of an election result. While the national incumbent’s decline has been resoundingly welcomed by the opposition, the electorate’s decision to punish the ANC in major municipalities was not in favour of any one countervailing force. Instead, the 2021 LGEs signaled a more disparate voice amongst voters, beckoning those in power to set aside their egos and exercise their capacity for cooperation and compromise to fulfil their mandate to deliver essential services to local communities.
At first glance, the complexity of the outcome is overwhelming in terms of predicting an accurate picture of who will actually govern at the municipal level. Municipalities, where the electorate delivered a clear majority, saw the ANC securing control of 161 councils, the Democratic Alliance (DA) with 13, and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) securing control of 10. Nevertheless, Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) results show the largest number of hung municipalities in the country since 1994. A total of 66 municipalities have been left hung across the country, meaning that no party was able to win more than 50% of the votes, giving rise to an intense and potentially heated negotiation for possible coalition governments.
The most interesting feature of the results is not which parties achieved the majority of votes, but which parties have secured enough votes to insert themselves as potential coalition kingmakers for the two leading parties, the ANC and the DA – both of whom experienced several humbling results in comparison to the 2016 LGEs.
The disenchantment with the status quo was most evident in major metros, where the stewardship of the country’s economic power is housed. Of South Africa’s eight Metropolitan Municipalities, the electorate failed to give one party an outright majority in five of them – namely Ekurhuleni, eThekwini, Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela Bay and Tshwane.
In the City of Johannesburg, the ANC received 33.60%, the DA received 26.47%, and ActionSA – led by its founder and DA-divorcee Herman Mashaba – garnered 16.05% of the vote. While the ANC obtained the most votes in each metro except for the DA’s stronghold in the City of Cape Town, and in Nelson Mandela Bay where the ANC and the DA will occupy 48 seats each, the pattern of the former liberation party’s reduced results echoed through Ekurhuleni, where it obtained 38.19% in comparison to the DA’s 28.92%; in eThekwini, where it obtained 42.02% to the DA’s 25.62%; and in Tshwane, where its 34.31% narrowly beat the DA’s 32.34%. It is in these metros where the balance of power will rest with several of the smaller parties, whose allegiance will be cajoled in the horse-trading to follow.
“The manner in which our people spoke should be indicative of their wish to have us as leaders working together,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Thursday night at the IEC’s official announcement of the results. The president is correct – the electorate’s disillusionment with previous majorities is a clear signal to the under-fire elite that South Africans would rather entrust a plethora of alternatives to serve their interests at the local level. However, the personal and ideological posturing of several parties has complicated the permutations of potential coalitions.
Predictably, the national opposition party has ruled out forming coalitions with ANC, with party leader John Steenhuisen saying “It is not the DA’s role to save the ANC”, thereby excluding the possibility of the most mathematically feasible partnership, forcing the DA to embark on the challenging road of persuading several smaller parties that curtailing the country’s historically entrenched socio-economic disparities is at the core of its manifesto. The DA has also said it will not enter into any coalition agreements with the EFF or any other party that does not subscribe to constitutionalism, the rule of law, a social market economy, a capable state as well as non-racialism. “These are the non-negotiables for the DA,” Steenhuisen added.
The EFF’s agenda on land expropriation without compensation could play a key role in who the party decides to partner within coalition talks. Having re-asserted itself as the country’s third-largest party with a revolutionary mandate, the EFF could have a deciding vote in several hung municipalities and metros, particularly in Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay. The party’s chief, Julius Malema, has also celebrated the dwindling majority of the ANC, reiterating that the ‘elephant is being eaten piece by piece. However, a lack of options for the ANC could see its National Executive Council moving its position on land expropriation to force a last-ditch partnership capable of blocking DA-led coalitions.
The apparent deadlock between the ANC, DA and EFF empowers the seats taken by a number of other parties who will have to weigh their options in the coming days. Newcomers in the political space, ActionSA will be in high demand as a centrist force in Gauteng’s split metros of Johannesburg and Tshwane, and they too have ruled out working with the ANC, though their leader has decried the DA’s institutional arrogance and tendency to overlook the suffering of the country’s poorest as reasons for his exit from the party in 2019. Further to the right of the political spectrum, the Freedom Front Plus (FF+) doubled its number of seats. Taking a more pragmatic approach that focuses on achieving the objectives of its manifesto over party-political grievances, the Patriotic Alliance (PA) could also influence outcomes in some areas. These are only a few of the parties that will garner the attention of the bigger players.
It is a political fact that many of the extreme positions espoused by campaigning candidates are inevitably tempered by the realities of governance. This is particularly true in the wake of LGEs, where communities will place more importance on their candidate’s role in securing the amenities that facilitate their daily lives, caring less about their affiliate party’s ideological posturing in the National Assembly. Parties, on the other hand, will have to consider the risk of destabilizing their core vote at the 2024 national elections by sidelining some of their more divisive ideological stances.
However, the greater risk is undoubtedly to subject local communities to a cycle of governance that fails to deliver on the basic needs of the people. The outcome, whichever coalitions are formed, is indicative of a new era of multi-party democracy for South Africa, and its politicians have the power to determine the success of its maturation at the local level.
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COVID-19 has been a catalyst for change across multiple dimensions through which human civilisations have come to function. Some of these could not have been anticipated before 2020; in many instances, however, the shock has accelerated processes that were already underway. In South Africa, concerns over the ability to hold free, fair, and safe elections have led to a long-running saga between the country’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) and competing interests within the polity. Ensuing contestations have been directed towards the country’s apex court, whose judgments have become increasingly sought for the interpretation of constitutional disputes.
The establishment of an independent body to manage elections has become an institutional norm of democracies. The body is designed to serve as an independent agency that regulates party and election finance and sets standards for how elections should be run. As an extension of the separation of powers – in which the judicial, legislative and the executive arms of the state carry out checks and balances, but do not interfere with the others’ functions – the purpose of the electoral commission is to provide the standards of impartiality which underscore the legitimacy of the democratic process. In South Africa, the IEC was established, along with several other institutions in terms of Chapter 9 of the Constitution, to guard democracy by making governments answerable and exerting co-operative control.
In a climate dominated by the imperative to mitigate the impact of the pandemic, the IEC has faced a dilemma over how to facilitate local government elections due to take place in 2021. Many countries have wrestled with the question of how best to enact their democratic process in the knowledge that it would require large-scale in-person participation of the electorate. Although many countries have opted to proceed and make accommodations – for example, by expanding online voter registration and ballot casting – the IEC took the view that postponement would be the best course of action and sought the approval of the Constitutional Court.
The IEC’s argument rested on the recommendations of the Moseneke Report, which proposed several adjustments to assist in reducing the potential for the transmission of COVID-19. These included extending voter registration, expanding special voting arrangements for the ill and vaccinations for poll workers. However, it also recommended that the local government elections due to take place in October 2021 be delayed until February 2022 – a date that would fall outside the 90-day window during which elections are required to be held from the expiry of the term of incumbent municipal councils. The case was supported by the ANC and some other parties, although it was opposed by others within the polity and broader civil society who maintained that the right of the electorate to remove underperforming municipal governments was more urgent than ever. On Friday 3rd September, the IEC’s application to postpone local government elections was ruled against by the Constitutional Court. The ConCourt added that elections must be held between 27th October and 1st November 2021, ordering Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma to proclaim a new date no later than 10th September.
Having followed the court’s ruling that elections were to go ahead by November 1st without delay, and that a voter registration weekend would need to be held, the IEC made a further announcement that the candidate nomination process would be re-opened for political parties. In its ruling, the Constitutional Court did not specifically order the re-opening of candidate registration, though it did state that amendments could be made to the election timetable where it is deemed “reasonably necessary”. With the ANC having failed to register candidates in 93 municipalities – despite parties having had the opportunity to nominate candidates by August 23rd – the IEC’s decision has added further fuel to the fire in the build up to the election.
On September 7th, the DA filed an urgent application to the Constitutional Court, asking them to set aside the IEC’s decision to re-open candidate registration. The application – which was subsequently given support from the EFF, representing an alliance between the two major opposition parties – asserts that the court’s allowance for “reasonably necessary” amendments caters for the re-opening of the voters roll in the context of the voter registration drive. In response to the implied allegation that the electoral commission’s decisions have favoured a particular political party, Mawethu Mosery, IEC Deputy Chief Electoral Officer, said, “The court has issued us direction in response to that application. We’ve agreed with the DA that the matter is urgent and we would wish that the court pronounces on it soonest, before the 20th of September. Our view is that we will oppose that, and we will give detailed reasons why we are opposing that and why we indicated that we are not favouring a particular political party.”
Although the outcome of the DA’s application remains unclear, the persistent attempts to challenge the IEC through the judiciary may cast further doubt over the impartiality of the electoral commission. On the other side of the coin, the DA have been targeted with accusations of attempting to usurp the IEC’s authority by returning to the apex court – a move that would breach the ‘separation of powers’ principle, according to Minister Dlamini Zuma. She argues that, by overruling the IEC’s decision to re-open candidate registration on the basis of the court’s previous order, the DA’s application would somehow rescind or constrain the powers of the electoral commission.
Time will tell whether these contestations yield a tangible effect on the authority of the IEC, and by extension, the validity of the country’s electoral process. With elections due to be held by November 1st, the likely outcome is that elections will take place as planned and allowances made for voter and candidate registration. Once the ballots are cast and tallied, the build up to 2021’s local government elections will fade into memory as the political battleground turns elsewhere. The long-run implications, however, may reverberate for some time.
After 27 years, South Africa’s democracy can barely be considered to have entered its adolescence. Unsurprisingly, the pains accompanying the process of growth and maturation have become more pronounced in recent times. The State vs. Former President Zuma has manifested as another epiphenomenon of this course, with the authority of the executive, the ruling party, and the judiciary pitted against one another, resulting in the setting of new legal precedents and civil contestation. Set against a backdrop of the hollowing out of state-owned enterprises and other Chapter 9 institutions, state capture and the investigation into its participants through the Zondo Commission has brought to light the need for careful reform and oversight into the powers of officials, political parties, and non-state actors to influence institutions of democracy for self-enrichment. Challenging the authority of the IEC may have served as a declaration by some within the polity and civil society of a new front on which this battle will be fought. In the short term, it may add to the perception that South Africa’s democracy has become farcical, fraught with political interference, and symptomatic of a terminal disease within the state. Over time, however, the painful process of bringing the inner workings of the IEC to the fore and re-affirming its mandate could help serve as the antidote.