Barney Pityana, former guest researcher at NAI.

Crucial test for ANC - South Africa’s local elections

Wednesday’s municipal elections in South Africa resemble a vote of confidence for President Jacob Zuma and his party the African National Congress. Barney Pityana, former guest researcher at NAI, explains why.

Since the General Elections held in 2014 a whole lot of developments have surfaced that are bound to become a feature of these elections, municipal or not, and thus render them a referendum of vote of confidence in the Presidency of Jacob Zuma, and the African National Congress.

Local Government or municipal elections in South Africa take place midway between the General Elections that happen every five years. The the next one is expected to be held in 2019.

Since 2014, the reports on corruption in government have taken centre stage with the final judgment of the Constitutional Court that the President had violated his oath of office; the state of the economy features strongly since the rapid change of Ministers of Finance last December; there are questions about state capture by friends of Jacob Zuma who seem to dictate and control state resources. At the same time there is evidence that unemployment is rising and the government has lost control, poverty levels are rising and inequality is becoming endemic. As a result the levels of anger and dissatisfaction are increasing, protests are a regular feature of South African society; levels of crime are also increasing, and constitutionalism is at risk from a government that appears to pay no respect to the rule of law.

Municipal elections are essentially about local issues, the provision of services etc. However, in South Africa local issues are indistinguishable from national issues because contestation is along party political lines, and each political party presents itself as capable of addressing the problems of the people. In this instance this is even more dramatised because there is much unhappiness about Jacob Zuma, and consequently about the party he leads, the ANC.

Fundamentally then this election has become a vote on the ANC in government. It is the largest election this country has ever held with over 26m voters registered, over 200 political parties participating and registered, the largest number of younger electors registered to votes, and a resurgent new political party, the EFF, new to the municipal scene having been established 3 years ago and sporting a leftist agenda; the racialisation of South African politics, as well as the ethnic or tribal factor that is worrisome.

The likeliest greatest losers in this election has to be the ANC. They have persisted with the leadership of a discredited leader in Jacob Zuma, and it looks like, this may be a time of reckoning for the party. I doubt that the party will lose power in the municipalities as a result, but it is likely to lose a lot of votes, something like 10% from the last election in 2014. It is thought that the last straw would be for the party to lose some of the metropolitan councils like Nelson Mandela Bay, and Tshwane, the capital, or even Johannesburg. Of course, the ANC is in a panic mood.

Whatever happens in the elections, one thing is clear, the ANC will have to go back to the drawing board after the elections. It is thoroughly discredited as a party, corruption is rampant, and it continues to lose support. At this rate it is even more likely to lose the General Elections in 2019.

Professor Barney Pityana is a human rights lawyer and theologian in South Africa.  He was one of the founding members of the South African Students' Organisation of the Black Consciousness Movement with Steve Biko. He was also a prominent member of the African National Congress Youth League during apartheid.

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