The ANC is braced for the loss of major urban areas in its worst electoral performance since assuming power in 1994.
In the critical battlegrounds of Johannesburg and Tshwane – the municipal area incorporating Pretoria – voters abandoned the ruling party in favour of a resurgent Democratic Alliance (DA) under the leadership of Mmusi Maimane. The ANC could lose control of both cities and Port Elizabeth if the centrist DA is able to build local coalitions with Julius Malema’s radical Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).
The vote is likely to be the first national poll in which the ANC has secured less than 60%, delivering a significant defeat for the ruling party and its scandal-hit president, Jacob Zuma. With over 80% of votes counted, the ANC continue to claim the highest share of the vote, gathering 54% of ballots compared to 27% for the DA and 7% for the EFF. But the dismal urban results suggest that the ANC is struggling to retain credibility with voters disenchanted by patchy service delivery and high unemployment amid a fierce economic downturn. The DA poured significant resources into the battle for such areas, targeting councils and mayoral seats in a bid to strengthen its influence and governing credibility ahead of the 2019 general election.
The DA’s strategy looks to have paid off in Nelson Mandela Bay, the municipal area encompassing Port Elizabeth, where the DA are set to be the largest party. The DA, competing in its first election under Maimane, its first black leader, are currently ahead in the region by 49% to 39%. The elections are seen as a crucial first test of Maimane’s popularity among black voters, who have previously proved doggedly loyal to the ANC, the party of liberation from white minority rule.
The poll represented the most significant municipal elections in the ANC’s twenty-two year reign, with many analysts viewing the vote as a plebiscite on the performance of president Zuma. With one in four South Africans unemployed and zero growth projected this year, many citizens are losing faith in the ruling party’s ability to deliver the transformational change needed to redress historical imbalances. Confidence in the political system has been eroded by a series of political and personal scandals enveloping the second term of president Zuma, including legal wrangles over taxpayer-funded upgrades to his home.
Speaking before the vote, Robert Besseling, consultant at ExxAfrica, said that significant urban defeats for the ANC could see the party’s popularity confined to rural areas.
“It will relegate the long-time governing ANC to a predominantly rural party that holds onto political power through alliances with traditional leaders in rural locations. As a result of the ANC’s slide in the major cities, the party’s support could drop close to 50% in the 2019 national elections,” he said.
Yet the ruling party will struggle to find safe havens in rural areas. Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters – a radical left-wing party dedicated to forced expropriation of white farms and public ownership of the mines – is looking to boost its appeal among poor rural voters. The EFF looks set to displace the DA as the second-largest party in Limpopo province, and could also prove kingmaker in urban areas where the ANC and DA have fought themselves to a stalemate. But the party’s trenchant leftist views and history of parliamentary obstruction could make coalition building difficult, according to John Ashbourne, Africa Economist at Capital Economics.
“The EFF could play the king-maker in Johannesburg and Tshwane. The leftist grouping, formed by ANC dissidents in 2013, claims that it will never support a coalition led by the ruling party. But its calls for large-scale nationalisations would also make a coalition with the traditionally more pro-business DA uncomfortable, to say the least,” he said.