- The African National Congress (ANC) will likely be the biggest loser of the 1 November municipal elections, but its loss will not be the gain of the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA).
- Smaller parties, not only the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), will make inroads, signaling a more fragmented political picture and protracted coalition-making post-election.
- The election outcome will directly affect President Cyril Ramaphosa’s re-election chances in 2022 and the outlook for coalition politics over the next decade.
With less than two weeks to go to the 1 November municipal elections, campaigning has kicked into high gear. But this year, several factors render the election outlook less predictable than usual:
- Voter turnout: Turnout in municipal elections always trails national ballots (it was 57% in 2016), but it could be especially low this year as the country reels from the pandemic, record unemployment (34.4%, narrowly defined), heightened poverty, and hunger. Traditional ANC voters are especially likely to stay away relative to the DA and other parties.
- ANC infighting: ANC infighting almost sabotaged the party’s candidate registration effort in key provinces. Divisions between factions aligned with President Cyril Ramaphosa and ex-president Jacob Zuma, and incidents of political violence, could further dampen voter turnout for the ANC, especially in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN).
- Pandemic restrictions: The easing of South Africa’s lockdown restrictions to “Level 1” on 30 September has eased campaigning restrictions in recent weeks. Door-to-door campaigns and rallies have since kicked into gear, but it is difficult to compare this year’s campaigns to previous election cycles.
- Funding restrictions: The Political Party Funding Act, which came into effect on 1 April, has complicated fundraising for all parties, but especially the ANC, as manifested by its deepening financial woes and its delayed staff salaries.
- Newcomer parties and independents: This year, a record number of parties (1483) as well as independent candidates have been registered. While most parties are locally or identity-based, newcomer parties like former Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba’s ActionSA could emerge as significant coalition players in key cities.
Who will be the winners and losers?
1. The ANC will be the biggest loser
The ruling ANC is likely to lose further vote share compared with 2016 (when it won 53.9% of the overall vote). While internal ANC polling has suggested that the party’s share could drop as low as the mid-40s, campaigning has recently picked up. President Cyril Ramaphosa, whose public approval levels vastly exceed those of his party, is crisscrossing the country to boost support for the ANC. Officials believe that Ramaphosa’s “smile” and frank admission of mistakes will help the party win back some support or at least reduce the party’s losses. However, at the ward level, many ANC candidates, particularly in urban centers, appear to be struggling, often facing angry communities who accuse all ANC leaders (not just the Zuma faction) of being corrupt. This year, worse-than-usual financial difficulties mean that standard resources like T-shirts and posters and even social media campaigns are unusually scarce.
The party may garner just under 50% of the vote share, but the lower it drops toward the mid-40s, the greater the political fallout may be, including for Ramaphosa’s re-election effort in 2022. The ANC will also continue to struggle in the majority of South Africa’s eight metropolitan municipalities. Like in 2016, it is unlikely to reach an outright majority in four key cities: Tshwane, Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela Bay, and Ekurhuleni. Cape Town is a lost cause for the ANC anyway. But even traditional ANC strongholds – eThekwini (KZN), Buffalo City (Eastern Cape), and Mangaung (Free State) – could see significant declines (see 2016 results below). eThekwini will be particularly crucial, as Zuma’s faction is agitating in KZN. In the Free State, suspended, corruption-accused ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule has been dismissive of ANC prospects, and the Ramaphosa camp fears’sabotage’ via Magashule-backed independents or stayaway voters.
2. But the DA will not be the big winner
The only recent Ipsos poll (below) sees DA support at around 17.9%, but the party’s vote share could come in somewhat higher, in the low 20s, particularly as DA voters are likely to turn out in greater numbers than ANC voters. However, the DA is still likely to lose votes compared to its record performance of 26.9% in 2016. With problems of its own making (particularly its propensity to alienate talented black leaders), the DA also seems unlikely to improve its vote share in key cities. In the only city which it rules outright, Cape Town, its 67% majority is expected to shrink. It may remain the second-largest party in all other key cities, but probably with reduced margins. As a result, its negotiating position vis-a-vis prospective coalition partners – formal and informal – will likely be weaker than in 2016.
3. Smaller parties are the ones to watch
Smaller parties – many local or identity-based – may be the biggest winners of the elections. One concern – particularly in the context of the pandemic- induced socio-economic shock – is whether the third-largest party, the populist EFF, with its “Land and Jobs Manje! Namhlanje!” (Land and Jobs Now! Today!) campaign could be the biggest beneficiary of the ANC’s decline. The EFF may increase its overall vote share from the 8.2% it won in 2016 into double digits, though Ipsos’ 14.5% voter support seems on the high side. Beyond its overall vote share, the biggest test for the EFF will be whether it can gain control of any councils for the first time. Governing is the party’s explicit target this year. However, council control is still uncertain, especially as the EFF tends to fare better on proportional representation- votes than on ward votes (which make up 50:50 of council seats). So while the EFF will talk up its gains, its 2021 performance may still stop short of a big ‘red’ populist splash.
Just as important as the EFF will be the gains of smaller parties, which could signal the arrival of a fourth factor in South African politics beyond the three larger parties. For example, former Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba’s ActionSA will likely emerge as a force to reckon with in Johannesburg, where it may take votes from the ANC, DA, and undecideds alike. Internal ActionSA polls seem to suggest that ActionSA could emerge as the single largest party in Johannesburg, which would be a massive upset and loss, not only for the ANC (from 45% in 2016) but also for the DA (38%). In Tshwane, ActionSA, the Afrikaner Freedom Front Plus (FF+), and independents backed by former DA leader Mmusi Maimane’s One South Africa (OSA) movement are all worth watching.
Coalition politics will evolve
Shifting party fortunes may signal a more fragmented political picture and protracted coalition-making post-election. If 2016 saw the onset of coalition politics at the municipal level, 2021 could set the scene for even more complicated coalition politics. In 2016, an “anyone but the ANC” attitude prevailed among key opposition parties. The radical EFF supported (albeit informally) the liberal DA to gain control of three key cities, Tshwane, Johannesburg, and Nelson Mandela Bay. This year, DA leader John Steenhuisen claims that his party will not form any coalitions with the EFF due to a lack of’shared values.’ Coalition negotiations could become trickier if the DA sticks to this pledge. As a result, even very small parties with just one or two council seats may gain disproportionate kingmaking power in governing coalitions.
For the ANC, too, new questions over coalition partners may arise. ActionSA, for example, has ruled out a coalition with the ANC. In cases like Ekurhuleni, the ANC has thus far been able to rely on very small parties to form coalitions. If its vote share drops much further below its 49% result of 2016, smaller parties may no longer suffice to gain control. In such as scenario, mayor Mzwandile Masina, aligned with the ANC’s’radical economic transformation’ faction, could forge the ANC’s first alliance with the EFF. If the ANC is reluctant to pursue EFF alliances elsewhere, speculation could even arise over DA-ANC coalitions (which barely exist to date). With the ANC’s majority set to come under pressure in national elections – if not in 2024, then in 2029 – its prospective coalition partners will be significant for national politics over the next decade.