- While the Electoral Commission (IEC) should be able to pull off the organization of local elections now set for 1 November, the process threatens to be politically messy and legally contested.
- Unless the ruling African National Congress (ANC) manages to complete missing candidate registrations, it risks further decline in its overall vote share and in key cities like Johannesburg and Tshwane.
- A messy election process implies increased risks of unrest; politically, a record-low outcome for the ANC could disrupt the party's succession battle heading into 2022.
On 8 September, Co-operative Governance Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma announced that the municipal elections will now be held on 1 November. The new determination of the election date was necessitated by the 3 September Constitutional Court (CC) ruling, which rejected the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC)'s application for a postponement of the elections until February 2022 and gave the IEC a narrow window between 27 October and 1 November within which to conduct the vote.
ANC expectations upended
The CC ruling upended the African National Congress (ANC)'s election strategy. As recently as last week, the party had appeared confident that the highest court would grant a delay until February 2022. After all, the IEC's application was based on a report by former deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke, who found that the polls would be unlikely to be free and fair if held under Covid-19 restrictions.
The ANC, despite the bleak macro situation, would also have counted on opposition problems to stem its own electoral losses. The liberal Democratic Alliance (DA) has essentially retreated into “white laager” mode after hemorrhaging top black leaders. The radical Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have struggled to capitalize on the fallout from the Covid-19 crisis and to grow into a truly nationwide party.
Nevertheless, opinion polls show declining trust levels amid the pandemic fallout and record unemployment. Even President Cyril Ramaphosa acknowledged public anger and disillusionment with his party in an ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting concluding on 6 September.
ANC own goal
Any room for ANC complacency has further narrowed because of the party's spectacular failure to submit hundreds of nominations for ward candidates and party lists in 93 out of South Africa's 278 municipalities by an initial 23 August deadline. The registration failure reflects the chaotic state of the party. HQ staff have been striking over salary delays; long dysfunctional party finances have been further disrupted by the Political Parties Funding Act, which came into force on 1 April and limits donations from individual donors on which the ANC has long relied to secure last-minute financing for day-to-day operations. As importantly, factional fights over nominations are increasingly contested and violent, particularly amid sky-high unemployment in which council jobs are even more highly prized.
Given the IEC's 6 September decision to reopen voter and candidate registration, the question is now to what extent the ANC can close its candidate registration gap within a matter of weeks; this is not a given amid contested candidate nominations, particularly in KwaZulu- Natal (KZN). Another factor will be legal challenges against the IEC decision to reopen candidate registration. The fewer candidates the ANC ends up with, the greater ANC losses may be at the municipal levels and probably in terms of its overall vote share. The ANC's 53.91% in the 2016 municipal elections was a record-low and began to swing internal support against then-president Jacob Zuma.
This messy picture will make for an unusually uncertain election process. Rather than being able to improve on its 2016 electoral performance by relying on Ramaphosa's popularity (albeit much diminished), speculation has begun that the ANC's overall vote share could drop below 50% for the very first time. The only recent opinion poll, conducted by Ipsos on 16-20 August, found that 49.3% respondents intended to vote for the ANC, while 17.9% voiced support for the DA and 14.5% for the EFF.
The DA expects to garner 23%, shy of its 2016 record of 26.77%, but this result might require ANC voters to stay away en masse while DA turnout is high. Overall, both the final voter registration figures and voter turnout on 1 November will be the key factors in the election process, which has allowed for little traditional campaigning given Covid-19 restrictions.
For the EFF, anywhere close to 14.5% would be a major achievement, given that the party garnered 8.14% in 2016 (10.8% in the 2019 national elections) and has struggled to expand its structures into a truly national party, beyond North West province, Limpopo, parts of Gauteng and KZN. A strong EFF showing could cause confidence jitters, particularly if the EFF were to emerge as the leading coalition partner in any councils.
One untested factor is ActionSA, the party formed by the former DA mayor of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba. It polled 1.5% in the Ipsos survey, but it is only contesting three metros (Johannesburg, Tshwane and Ekurhuleni) and three municipalities in KZN (including eThekwini) and could emerge as a significant player in Johannesburg.
As a result, the ANC's hold on key cities – including Johannesburg, Tshwane, Nelson Mandela Bay and possibly Ekurhuleni – could be eroded further. DA-ruled Cape Town is a lost cause for the ANC anyway, but even the ANC's traditional majority in eThekwini could decline amid factional fighting, the fallout from the July riots, and Zuma's (controversial) recent release from prison on medical parole. In KZN as a whole, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) will try to recover lost ground from the ANC, while the EFF will try to build its base and thus its political bargaining power.
Like in 2016, this year's elections may yield a new set of coalition governments in key urban centers. Cape Town and Durban appear to be the only cities with relatively certain outcomes. In all other key cities, tough coalition negotiations loom. Talks will be highly tactical; for instance, the EFF might support the ANC's Mzwandile Masina (associated with the Zuma faction) in Ekurhuleni but ActionSA's Mashaba in Johannesburg.
While coalition politics may be celebrated as a sign of growing electoral competition, the coalition arrangements borne out of the 2016 elections have largely proved dysfunctional and unstable, and thus offer little upside for local governance in the near term.
Longer term, the 2021 results may raise questions about the next national elections in 2024. Speculation that the ANC could drop below 50% at the national level for the first time could raise concerns about future coalitions and who the ANC might partner with.
The extent of ANC losses will also shape speculation around the ANC's leadership election looming in 2022. A terrible result – especially if worse than the 53.91% margin under Zuma in 2016 – would probably increase contestation around Ramaphosa's “CR22” re-election bid, which until now has seemed very likely to succeed. KZN had the largest number of delegates at the ANC's 2017 national conference, meaning a troubled local election in the province could spell trouble for conference preparations and the CR22 campaign next year.