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1 August 2016

Why South Africa’s municipal elections matter

Control of Johannesburg is at stake.

By Martin Plaut

On Wednesday South Africans head for the polls in an election that will shape the country for years to come. These are municipal elections, but no one is in any doubt about their significance. Both the ANC government and the opposition are contesting them with the vigour of a general election. The reason is simple: the fate of the ANC and its major challenger, the Democratic Alliance (DA), are in the balance.

Control over the eight largest city councils, known in South Africa as “metros”, are the main prize. It is here that 40 per cent of the population lives. One – Cape Town – is already in the DA’s hands. No one realistically expects it to be won by the ANC, any more than Durban, a stronghold of President Jacob Zuma, will be won by the DA.  Much will depend on how what share of the vote is won by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EEF) of the firebrand, Julius Malema.

The DA has set its sights on three metros. 

These are:

  • Tshwane, which incorporates Pretoria, the nation’s capital
  • Johannesburg, the country’s economic centre
  • Nelson Mandela Bay, including Port Elizabeth, on the Indian Ocean

According to the latest polls the DA are in with a chance.

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Nelson Mandela Bay





If the polls are correct then the DA could take Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay. In Johannesburg the ANC’s mayor, Parks Tau, is popular and has a personal following, and this may explain why the fight appears much closer. But if polling is suspect in Britain it is even less reliable in South Africa. Internal DA polls are less favourable to the party than the public results and the ANC usually benefits from a late swing in its direction.

There are a number of other factors to be considered.

The ANC is a remarkable political organisation. It can draw on over a century of tradition and its long fight against racism. Its supporters in the townships will be enlisting the help of prominent musicians, with candidates visiting the bars and restaurants, giving away food, T shirts and free drinks.

Jacob Zuma has been touring the country, attacking the DA for being the embodiment of white hopes, and issuing dire warnings. “The ancestors are turning their backs against you if you leave the ANC and you will have bad luck,” the president told an election rally.  

The ANC also has the national broadcaster on its side. The SABC is far from impartial and its ability to reach 20 million people a week is unrivalled.

But the ANC faces an uphill battle. Unemployment is sky-high, with nearly one in two young people out of a job. Many are so disillusioned with repeated ANC promises that they may refuse to vote altogether.

The DA has a good record for delivering services to the black communities that it serves. By contrast some ANC municipalities are among the worst providers of everything from housing to sanitation.

The ANC is riven with factionalism. A mayor was imposed on Tshwane from outside the area, leading to riots led by local ANC supporters. And most of the political murders in the run-up to these elections have taken place inside the ANC. Competition for local government positions (often the only way of escaping poverty) is so intense that violence and even murder have characterised political competition, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal (the coastal province containing Durban).

Wednesday’s election pits fresh-faced opposition leaders against Jacob Zuma and his colleagues, most of whom are well beyond retirement age.  Zuma himself is 74, while the DA’s new leader, Mmusi Maimane, is 36 years old and the EFF’s “commander in chief” Julius Malema is 35.

Will voters prefer the sharp-suited Maimane or the red overalls of Malema over Zuma and his colleagues in ANC colours of green, black and gold? Turnout for each party will be critical in this battle for the urban votes.  If the ANC holds on to all three metros it will be a triumph for Zuma and a serious blow for his rivals. But if the opposite is true then Zuma’s many enemies inside and outside the ANC will be after his head.

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