On Monday, November 1st, South Africa held municipal elections to elect local councils and mayors. On October 21st, we brought together a panel of scholars with expertise in the country to discuss the main issues and potential implications of this election:
Moderator:Evan Lieberman is a member of the EGAP network and the Total Professor of Political Science and Contemporary Africa at MIT. He has just written a book on democracy in post-apartheid South Africa, Until We Have Won Our Liberty, which will be out in May of next year through Princeton University Press.
Panelists:Rorisang Lekalake is a PhD candidate in comparative politics and political economy at MIT. Her current research focuses on the role of land and inequality in shaping political attitudes and behavior in South Africa. She received her Masters in Political Science at the University of Cape Town before working at Afrobarometer.
Tshegofatso Putu is a Kader Asmal Fellow and Masters in Philosophy student in International Peace Studies at Trinity College in Dublin. She also has a Master of Commerce in Development Economics from the University of Cape Town. Her research focuses on utility privatization, service delivery, and the effects of neoliberal economic policies on interpersonal violence and crime in South Africa.
Watch the full discussion here:
Below we include a transcription of the discussion (edited for clarity and brevity), along with a link that will take you to the segment of the video where each topic is discussed.
Local elections: Why they matter in the South African context
Evan Lieberman:Let me start with a question that might be on some people’s minds, particularly those that don’t follow South African politics too closely: why are you even gathering here to talk about a local election? There was a peaceful, in many ways run-of-the-mill for South Africa, national election in 2019. And, as it has done in every national election since 1994, the majority of the electorate went for the African National Congress (ANC). Although somewhat diminished, the balance of national-provincial power stayed really just as it’s been for several decades now.
And, here in the United States, where I’m sitting, local elections are kind of humdrum affairs. If they are ever bitterly contested, it’s about some very, very local rivalry–one town or city–that’s mostly unrelated to the national picture, and it’s quite separate.
So, Rori, can you start us off by saying something about the local electoral contest in South Africa that puts into perspective what’s going on. Why, for example, is the President of South Africa campaigning for local elections?
Rorisang Lekalake:Thanks very much, Evan. Well, as you yourself said, local elections are of course supposed to be about local issues, and there are a lot of very important issues on the line at that level. But, the distinction between local and national issues is very much blurred in South Africa. Often, voters are unclear about which responsibilities fall to which level of government. And, political parties often tend to blur the lines between the local and national level in their own campaigning. Local elections are also very important because they provide opposition parties an opportunity to demonstrate their governing effectiveness at the subnational level, which is really crucial in a context like South Africa that has one party that is extremely dominant at the national level.
Local elections also quite unique in relation to provincial and national votes because of their institutions and timing. First, in terms of institutions, voters are able to directly elect their ward councilors as opposed to using proportional representation. So, they have the chance to directly reward or punish a representative based on their performance. In terms of timing, they come two years after national votes, which means that voters are also given the opportunity to signal any dissatisfaction they might have with the ANC. And, this seems to be borne out, when we look at the electoral data; the ANC vote share seems to be lower overall in local elections. There was the largest drop that occurred between the 2014 national election and the previous municipal election in 2016. And, I think that’s why you will see that national level players, including the president himself, take these elections seriously.
Evan Lieberman: In 2019, South Africa held concurrent provincial and national elections. Coming up on November 1st, there are these local elections. Let’s look back at where things left off in the last local election, which was back in 2016. And, Hugo, for this, I am going to turn to you to ask how did that one go? No small question here, but what has been the state of local government since then?
Hugo van der Merwe: Local government is in many ways, where things really fall apart in South Africa. It is where the real service delivery is supposed to happen in terms of electricity, water, roads. I think that’s where people are particularly unsatisfied with the performance of the government. They blame, well, they don’t know who to blame, and I think that’s where the confusion comes in. Whoever is in power gets blamed, no matter who is actually in charge locally.
For the political parties, what’s at stake at the local level is control over the municipalities, which means controlling certain budgets and contracts. That is where a lot of the corruption happens, where political parties can hand out favors to build their support base and, until recently, the funding for their parties. We now have a bit more transparency in party funding, so those funds are starting to dry up.
Essentially, at the local elections level, as with the national elections, the contestation and the violence is around intra-party fights for positions, rather than between parties. It’s a pattern we see in every local election, and that’s continuing in this one as well.
The lay of the land heading into this election: weak coalition politics, independent candidates, and breakaway parties
Evan Lieberman:Just so we have the context for this election, I wanted to talk about the electoral results from the previous municipal elections in 2016, because in some ways that was a really big election.
We think back to 1994, which was the first multiracial election in South Africa–what we really think of as the dawn of democracy in South Africa. The ANC was overwhelmingly dominant for much of that time–though not in every province and locality. But, 2016 really ushered in a lot of electoral moxie on other political parties. Maybe it was their strengths or ANC’s weakness, either way, we saw this big ANC decline. There were a lot of coalition governments that emerged from that, because at the local level (just as at the provincial and national level) it’s essentially a parliamentary system, and in order to decide who is going to be mayor, you need the backing of the majority of sitting councilors.
Hugo, could you tell us a little bit about how experiments with coalition governments have gone at the local level? It certainly could be a harbinger for what coalition governments could be at the national level, or maybe it just tells us something about the particularities of local governments.
Hugo van der Merwe:Firstly, there were three metropolitan areas that were taken over by the Democratic Alliance (DA) from the ANC, in coalition partnership with other opposition groups. Essentially, those coalitions have not gone well. There have been major fallouts between the political parties.
Since then, the DA has lost control of two of their municipalities to new coalitions. So, in terms of coalition politics, I don’t think the parties are ready for it. There’s too much animosity, there’s a level of secrecy and mistrust within politics that makes it very difficult to maintain these coalitions.
We are also seeing new collaborations emerge in this next election, but for now, it doesn’t look like a feasible form of government. I don’t think there is the level of political maturity amongst these parties–there’s internal strife in the parties that makes it very difficult for them to maintain solid relationships externally. I think the DA particularly has internal leadership wrangles that have spilled out into inter-party dynamics.
Evan Lieberman:So, Tshego, I want to get you in here. Hugo is talking about a few parties–the DA, ANC–many people listening to this might not be so familiar with South African politics. I don’t expect you to talk about all of them, but there are, by my account, over 300 parties competing in this election, with some pretty wild names. Who are the main players and actors competing in this local election?
Tshegofatso Putu:We have the African National Congress (ANC), which is the liberation party, who has been in power since 1994–the first election of the new democratic South Africa.
We have the Democratic Alliance (DA), which has been the official opposition until the last two elections where we saw the emergence of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) as another challenger. This new party was made up of people that broke away from the ANC–essentially some leading members of the ANC Youth League had a coalition which then became the Economic Freedom Fighters. Their politics have to do with land, and they claim to be representative of the working class in South Africa. In Parliament, if you see how they present themselves, they wear the uniforms traditionally worn by domestic workers in South Africa. So people who work in the garden or painters, they will wear overalls, and this is how EFF present themselves.
The Democratic Alliance (DA) has been seen as the representative of the white minority and some of their leading issues. Then you have other breakaway parties, such as the Freedom Front Plus (FF+), which is a breakaway party of different Afrikaan nationalist organizations. Then, you have smaller parties, as well, that all emerge from the same space. A lot of the parties are made of up of figures that have broken away from the ANC, disgruntled members, or disgruntled members of the DA.
In the Western Cape, there is a party called Good. Most of the parties have similar objectives, just having broken away at some point and then organized around the new party. That is the general landscape. We have the introduction of smaller parties that are more common in these local government elections; parties based around more community-issues. In the Western Cape, a lot of them are aligned to identity politics. It’s an interesting election coming up, and one that is moving towards parties that are more identity-based.
Evan Lieberman:Now, one can wonder again from an American perspective, if you want to get into political office, forming a small party is usually not the way to do it. But, as Rori explained, while it’s true that at the constituent level, it’s a single member system, it’s also a proportional representation system in terms of how the council gets elected. So, it would seem that you have a lot of individuals and factions who are thinking, “well, maybe I could be the kingmaker for this election.” Has any one of you gotten a sense of that–is it that small parties are arising because they are hoping that they’ll be at the razor’s edge, the difference between 49% vs. 51%, or do people just want more expression in the municipalities?
Hugo van der Merwe:I think there are certain people who are pushing very single issue agendas who want to make sure that there is a voice for it, without any serious anticipation of being very powerful. For many people there is a certain need for a voice. There are three dominant parties, and it almost obscures any other debates within this process. It’s a very staged process. I think people are generally desperate for something new in this environment.
Generally, the coalitions, in the main metropolitan areas, will be from amongst the main parties, and the smaller parties won’t have much of a say. But, there is also the possibility, as happened in Cape Town, where the DA for a number of years, governed a coalition with a number of small parties. So, they had to align themselves with some of the issues raised by the small parties. But ultimately the DA had very strong control, and now they have even more dominant control. There is a certain sense that the bigger parties will swallow the smaller one in these processes. The kingmaker of process might look at small municipalities, but not so much at the big ones.
Rorisang Lekalake: To briefly add to what Hugo said, it’s been interesting to see the way that larger parties have responded to previous elections, namely in the way that, the DA in particular, has shifted or introduced messaging aimed at discouraging voters from supporting some of these smaller parties, due to concerns that they would be forced into coalition politics. That has also been interesting to see how they’ve done that. And how the ANC, in particular, has absorbed some of the really popular platforms of parties like the EFF into their own agendas.
In 2016, for the first time, the ANC just lost getting the majority, and all the other parties ranging from FF+, (which Thsego pointed out is kind of an Afrikaner party), to the EFF, (which is the exact opposite; kind of an almost Black nationalist party), along with IFP (a Zulu based party), and the DA (a more market oriented formerly white liberal party) basically got into coalition and said, anything but the ANC. It was a really tough time, and less than 2 years into it, the ANC somehow convinced a couple of councilors to go along with them in a vote of no confidence and they got the mayor out and got a new ANC mayor in. They did this under the cloak of secrecy. Strangely enough, the election that initially produced a coalition government wound up producing an ANC government. Lots of strange things can happen in electoral politics in South Africa.
One interesting new addition, it seems, is the rise of independent candidates. That, of course, isn’t going to be the case at the level of proportional representation, there you have to vote for a party, but it could be a factor for the ward councilors. So, Tshego, what’s your sense? I looked at this massive nomination list and it’s a small percentage, about, 1.5% are independent. Do they have a shot?
Tshegofatso Putu:I think because of the nature of local government elections and–as the other speakers have said–the fact that they deal with water and electricity, which have increasingly become a problem including in metropolitan areas, people want to see their nextdoor neighbor, who is going through the same issues, on the ballot.
I think people have become disenchanted with the government; it feels to them so far away. The representatives who are in political parties, who have agendas and ideologies that might not align with the community ideologies. I think the rise of independents is something that might be very important. I think that people would steer towards voting for independents. Although, it’s also difficult, as an analyst, to make projections about this because independent candidates are very new in South Africa. So, we don’t know how it will go, but intuitively, with how people feel about politics and service delivery, they are more likely to vote for their next door neighbor, who is someone that they know and trust, they know will be accountable, and don’t have a bigger agenda.
Issue voting and identity politics
Evan Lieberman:Rori, I want to turn to you, for a lot of students of African politics, they are used to thinking of voting in terms of ethnic parties or clientelism, but so far, from the panel, I’ve heard a lot of talk about issues related to service delivery, to land. This is a good thing. We usually think that a democracy is richer when it’s based on programmatic parties and platforms. Would you say that’s fair?
In fairness, I’ve also heard the panel mention Afrikaner nationalists–they only get a small percentage of the vote, but there’s certainly some identity politics there for sure, and we know that there’s a pretty high correlation between race, ethnicity and voting support in South Africa, but a far from perfect one. My question to you: are local elections in South Africa about programmatic politics? If so, what do you see as the major issues on the ballot in this election?
Rorisang Lekalake:I think in at least in terms of official campaigning, there seems to definitely be agreement that these elections should be about issues and also a certain consensus about what the important issues and challenges are. There’s a lot of talk about broadly improving service delivery in general, tackling financial mismanagement, and essentially broadening access to all sorts of different services; improving on what is already out there for South Africans.
I think what becomes a little bit difficult is the fact that there are elements of identity politics that are dog-whistled at times in the campaigning. It’s not just when you have outright Afrikaner or nationalist parties or with the EFF, who are on opposite ends of the spectrum, who on the one hand, on the EFF side, are clearly stating that they believe that white farmers should have their land expropriated for the Black majority, or on the Freedom Front side, they talk about an end to affirmative action. But you also observe it in secular campaigning. On the part of the DA, most controversially, they had campaign posters that had potential to stoke existing tensions between the Black and the Indian population in KwaZulu-Natal. I think that while there definitely has been a lot of talk on the issues and consensus on what those issues are, the media has rightly pointed out that a lot of the campaigning has turned into “bad politics” elections in which parties are really capitalizing on these grievances and resentments for their own benefit.
COVID-19 and the election
Evan Lieberman:So, one big issue that I can’t believe we haven’t talked about yet is COVID-19. South Africa has had a pretty massive COVID-19 epidemic by any standard, certainly by the standards of what we’ve observed in the African continent. Rori, what do you think? How big an issue is the government’s response to COVID; is it going to be a referendum on local governments’ responses, or something else? Do you think people are going to be safe voting in this election?
Rorisang Lekalake:I think in terms of people’s response to the government’s action so far, for the most part at least, they seem to have high ratings of the overall response. But, there’s definitely some grievances, regarding perceived unfairness in the distribution of COVID-related relief funds and perceived corruption in the disbursement of those funds. So, there is definitely an underlying tension between the ones who reward the government for doing a fairly good job considering how grave the situation was, but at the same time, it seems to really be undermining preexisting distrust in the government, in the leadership and institutions. I think where this can have grave results is in turnout. Now, voters will not only have to face whether they feel motivated to go out to vote and participate but also whether they feel safe doing so in person. That has been complicated by the fact that the Independent Electoral Commission had a report that highlighted the risks involved in doing so. And there’s basically been a bit of tension between different parts of the government and different political parties about whether or not it’s really safe to do so. There’s a lot of mixed messages.
Evan Lieberman: I mean, we should highlight that the Independent Electoral Commission didn’t want this election to take place on November 1st. They tried to push it; they went to the Court and said we’d really like to postpone this election. Court said, “no, sorry, you need to have this election on the 5-year timetable that we always have elections.” So, they are doing it.
The role of former President Jacob Zuma
Evan Lieberman: Sorry to be American-centric, that’s how Americans are when they talk about foreign politics, but I want to talk about an issue. You know, here in the US, we have this disgraced former President showing up and inserting himself in all sorts of electoral contests. And South Africa seems to have something quite similar in your President Zuma. You may or may not like it when I call him your President Zuma, just the way I might not refer to the guy I’m talking about as my former President.
You know the parallels between these two guys are pretty amazing. They both got elected despite well-known sexual scandals, both were involved in lots of corrupt deals while in office–both sought to enrich themselves. Both were removed through more or less democratic processes, and yet, they are both casting a really big shadow on politics today. That’s really true in this local election and what’s gone on in the past couple of months. So, Hugo, can you tell us the role that Jacob Zuma is playing in South African politics over this past year and how that relates to this election?
Hugo van der Merwe: Essentially, Zuma was the President until fairly recently. And there are two factions within the ANC, broadly speaking: the Ramaphosa faction and the Zuma faction. This is an ongoing battle–it’s not just about the two individuals, it’s about a whole slate of candidates that have been vying for senior positions in government and control over the ANC party. So, that has been an ongoing battle since before Zuma started and, for a while, Zuma’s faction held sway, and now the Ramaphosa faction holds sway.
It’s been a dirty fight all the way through, but it’s now taken on a new level of urgency, because Ramaphosa said they are willing to take this all the way through to the courts to ensure that people who committed acts of corruption are sent to jail. So, it’s not simply a fight over who controls the resources, but actually a fight for survival and for certain ANC leaders to stay out of jail. That’s really increased the stakes, so in this particular situation, Zuma was found to be in contempt of court because he wouldn’t cooperate with the commission that was investigating the corruption.
The constitutional courts found him in contempt and he was sentenced to jail. That triggered basically a fight back, an escalation, where Zuma supporters took to the streets and organized very targeted violence. But, it also fanned popular expressions of violence that escalated into looting of shopping malls, and essentially into trying to turn a targeted insurrection into a populist response to the dominant ANC faction.
In some ways that is deeply concerning that so many people did participate, that there was sufficient disillusionment with, basically, our social contract. That there isn’t a sense that this is a society that cares for people, particularly during COVID-19, where so many people have been so deeply affected by COVID and the lockdown. We have a situation, where it’s very volatile in terms of how people can be mobilized around these disenchantments with the present government, and the political leaders know how to play into those sentiments.
Political violence in this election cycle
Evan Lieberman:Earlier, Hugo made reference to violence. South Africa has long, long been a violent country. It was violent during apartheid, it was violent during the transition away and there’s been a fair bit of violence since then. But, there does seem to be an uptick in violence in the recent months around nominations and this election. Tshego, I want to ask you, do you see this as run-of-the-mill South African violence, or should we be concerned that this is a new level of violence and that things are getting out of hand? Can you shed any light for us on how we should think about violence in the electoral contest in South Africa?
Tshegofatso Putu:I think that the violence that we’ve noticed is not necessarily notable. In the research I’ve been doing, we see that political violence has decreased since 2018. So, the South African police services and the inter-ministerial committee for political killings, along with some independent organizations, have put out reports that show that there has been a downward trend since 2018. Another important aspect of political violence in South Africa is that most of it is concentrated in KwaZulu-Natal. That has been the trend since the 1980s, due to internal factions in that province. So, that has really been the hot spot of political violence. And, we’ve seen that in that province as well there has been a decrease. In 2016, the last local election, there were 31 political murders versus now in the first half of 2021, which is an election year as well, there have been 4 politically-correlated murders. So, we have seen a decline. And this is in the context of a country, as you said Evan, where there are a lot of political killings, so I think that this downward trend is something that is positive. I’ve seen somewhere that people are saying that because of COVID-19, branches and political movements have not been able to meet physically and this has contributed to the decline. Not sure about that explanation, but I think COVID has affected a lot in terms of governments and organizing. So that could be why the numbers might have decreased significantly.
Evan Lieberman:All right, well, thank you for the positive take on things in South Africa. Because I actually happen to be pretty bullish on South Africa. South Africans tend to focus on the negative things going on, and I get it, because there are a lot of challenges and problems, but I also think if we also look over the longer term and we see how these elections are being contested in a vigorous, democratic form, there’s a lot of positives that can be taken from it, particularly when we look at it from a comparative and historical perspective.
Predictions: How will the ANC do and what will turnout be?
Evan Lieberman:I want to end by getting predictions from all of you. You weren’t prepared for this, but they will be easy ones. Let’s see if we can get predictions on two big questions: (1) is this going to be an uptick or downtick for the ANC in terms of how they do nationally in local elections? And (2) what will turnout look like? Turnout was great in 2016, but then it was pretty poor in 2019. Now, it was pretty bad weather in 2019–predictions were that turnout was going to be bad, and it was. But it’s important as South Africa is still a young democracy.
Question one: is the ANC going to do better, worse or the same as it did in the last election? Question two: how is turnout going to be?
Tshegofatso Putu:They might surprise everyone by doing the same. So not have the outright majority, but also not lose by a large number. ANC might end up in the same position, where it’s just below the majority votes, between 46 and 49%. That’s what I suspect, just based on some of the data that I have seen very recently, from computer assisted telephone interviewing that was conducted in the last week of August.
Evan Lieberman:What about the turnout, especially among young people? You are a young person, and they’ve been the worst, in terms of turnout, everywhere. Is turnout going to increase, remain the same or fall?
Tshegofatso Putu:The ANC has a new strategy where they deviated from older, classic candidates to younger candidates, who speak to issues like LGBTQI. That’s what we’ve seen, so I think they are trying to convince young people to turn out like that. And all the other parties also seem to be running people who are more relevant. So the EFF, of course, is a young party, and the issue-based parties are running people that are more direct to them. We might see the youth participate, although that is one of the least reliable demographics across the world. So, I think they might be some people showing up, but I don’t think we’ll see large changes from other years. Also, one more thing, I do think that there will be more rural participation, than those who are in the metro areas. I think that during these COVID times, as mentioned by everyone else, rural populations had more grievances and I think they need more urgent change than everyone else. Just intuitively, having seen how COVID affected the rural population more.
Evan Lieberman:Great,Hugo, I will turn to you. How’s the ANC going to do, and what’s turnout going to look like?
Hugo van der Merwe:Firstly,I think the main political parties are going to do worse. None of them are doing enough to inspire or show that they are going to do anything different. They are also falling into the perception that they are not dealing with the key concerns that people have and they can’t expand beyond their existing support base.
I think there is going to be a gradual increase, maybe, in the small parties. My guess is mainly where people have name recognition. I think it’s that question – is this someone who is known in the community either from being a councilor for a big party or having some other profile in that community? And that’s going to vary from one town to the next. In some cases, where nobody is standing up with a serious profile, so it’s not going to have any impact in those areas.
I think there’s still a serious disillusionment with politics. I think the biggest problem with democracy in South Africa is that people are losing faith in the democratic process, and they are turning to other forms of protest rather than voting. There’s almost a sense of “why vote?” That’s the biggest challenge. So, I am hoping for an increase in turnout because I think we really need to hold on to this privilege…not privilege, this right that we fought for that we shouldn’t be retreating from.
Evan Lieberman:Last word from you, Rori? What do you think?
Rorisang Lekalake: I think that in general what we might see is that people’s underlying preferences for the different parties have not necessarily changed that much between 2019 and today. What will affect the overall results is your second question, which is that of turnout – who makes it to the polls and who doesn’t. That will partly be a result of political parties’ ability to turnout their particular voting constituencies. But, my concern is that the unprecedented situation with COVID will amplify existing inequalities amongst the South African electorate and lead to disparities in voting based on who is able to, either because they feel comfortable voting, and have gotten the vaccine, or perhaps because of socioeconomic considerations.
Evan Lieberman:Well, my prediction is that it’s going to vary a lot… [laughs] … just kidding. There’s lots of local elections, 257 local elections. One of the things that I found in the last local election is that everywhere that the ANC had previously done really well, it did worse, and vice versa. And so, I do think that when I start looking at the patterns of South African local elections there’s a tendency for this back and forth swing. My guess is that we’ll see again a little bit of that reversal because everyone is a bit unhappy and that unhappiness translates into, on the margins, some reversals. But that on balance, nationally, we’ll probably end with pretty similar, low-50 percents for the ANC, nationwide. And I think that, compared to 2019, participation is going to go up a little bit, because I think there’s a lot of energy around these elections. But of course COVID could stand in the way, but I don’t think it’s going to. But that’s my prediction, I laid it out there, I could be very wrong.