The left and the elections
Following the 2016 local government elections, it is not just the ruling ANC that is licking its wounds, but the left has very little to celebrate outside of the consolidation of the Economic Freedom Fighters as the third biggest party in the country. Even so, its increased share of the vote from the 2014 national elections where it obtained just over 6% to its current performance of 8,2 % is a lot less than what was expected – not least by the EFF itself. Parties supporting neoliberal or free market policies secured at least a combined 85% of the vote, even if those voting for the ANC, DA and IFP are not aware of their parties’ neoliberal orientation. Parties with socialist programmes such as the Bolshevik Party of South Africa, African People’s Socialist Party, Socialist Party of Azania, etc. and the various affiliates of the NUMSA supported United Front obtained less than 20,000 votes! Including AZAPO, the PAC and their various offshoots does not bring the combined tally much beyond 80,000 votes.
Further decline for Zuma’s ANC
The big story of the elections, however, is the relatively poor performance of the ANC Alliance. Normally the elections should have taken place in April or May of this year. They were postponed until August. The poor showing of the ANC would probably have been even worse had the elections taken place in the midst of the corruption and constitutional controversies that raged around the Zuma presidency earlier in the year.
These local government elections should lead to some serious soul searching by the ANC leadership in light of their worst electoral showing since 1994 and in light of a campaign costing more than R1 billion. The ANC obtained only 54% of the vote compared with 63% in the 2011 local government elections and over 66% in the 2006. The ANC has lost ground in several of the big metros including Nelson Mandela Bay and Tshwane where the neoliberal DA will likely take over their running. According to the former Governor of the Reserve Bank, Tito Mboweni the ANC stands to lose about 85% of the municipal budget. Its support has fallen below 50% in several big metros, including Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni. This is not a small issue for a party that has long existed on its capacity to dispense patronage and largesse.
It is clear that for the ANC the election results will have significant ramifications and widen tensions within the organisation. ANC Secretary General, Gwede Mantashe warned early this year that, should its support plunge below 60%, it would mark a “psychological and political turning point”. That turning point has now arrived, and, with the 2017 ANC Conference rushing forward, the blame game will drive wedges between the top leaders at all levels of the party. It is likely that the Zuma leadership will not allow a wide ranging assessment and introspection, lest it strengthens the reverberating calls for him to go. However, such an introspection will be necessary if the ANC stands any chance of renewing itself and restoring its legitimacy and former hegemony.
In the coming weeks, we will have to interrogate the statistical details to uncover the devil. However, it is already necessary to caution those commentators that are writing the obituary of the ANC and the end of its dominance of electoral politics. This is premature. What is already clear from our cursory analysis that even though the 2016 elections confirm the trend of declining ANC support, this time round its poor showing is less a result of its supporters deserting it for an alternative but rather just not coming out to vote. Amongst ANC supporters there is deep disillusionment. This contrasts with the DA’s better showing which was as a result of their greater ability to bring out their supporters to vote and to some extent breaking into new areas. However, our initial analysis of the vote indicates that the DA’s growth in so-called African townships is still quite modest.
The DA makes significant advances
The DA and the EFF were the main beneficiaries of the falling support for the ANC. The DA increased its vote by nearly 1 million votes which translates into a percentage increase of the share of the vote from 24% to 27%. In 2011 the DA received 3, 177 million votes and in these elections they obtained 4,004 million votes. For the DA this represents an almost 25% improvement in the number of people that voted for it and contradicts the idea of an electoral ceiling beyond which it cannot grow. It is also clear that the DA won ground in several black townships.
The EFF received just over 1,2 million votes which gave it over 8% of the vote and consolidated it as the third largest party in the country. The outcome of the election has placed the EFF in a stronger position than its electoral showing as it is positioned as potential king-maker in several hung municipalities, not least Nelson Mandela Bay, Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni and Tshwane metros. The EFF increased its vote from the 2014 national election by only just over 100,000 votes, which is not as significant as one would have imagined given the time the EFF has had in building structures and profiling itself since the 2014 elections. Nevertheless, we should not underestimate the significance for the left of the electoral showing of the EFF. The 1,2 million votes for the EFF must be seen as a vote for a radical political alternative to the ANC and DA and provides a foundation for growing a left electoral base. How this unfolds will depend on how the EFF approaches the issue of coalitions. Should it enter into alliances with the DA against the ANC it is likely to lose support amongst radical layers. In some ways the EFF has boxed itself into a corner by publicly rejecting alliances with the ANC. For example, forming a coalition with the ANC in Gauteng may help drive a wider wedge between the Gauteng ANC and Zuma and bring closer the EFF’s major campaign to chase Zuma from power. But best still is to refuse to form any coalition with either the ANC or DA. Allow minority local governments to come into existence, subjecting those in power to seek the EFF’s support for any major decision or law that needs to be passed.
Outside of a few specific cases, local associations and independents did poorly, as the electorate responded more to national issues than to specific local concerns. The left outside of the Alliance and outside of the EFF went into the elections disorganised and with no unified perspective. The United Front had decided not to stand in the elections, nevertheless several affiliates registered either in the name of the United Front or under their own banner. In general these organisations did very poorly and were not able to gain traction with the voters Nevertheless there are some important exceptions. The Sterkspruit Civic Association obtained 23% of the vote and was second to the ANC in the Senqu municipality and has 8 seats in the municipality out of possible 34 seats. In Plettenberg Bay, the Active United Front is the kingmaker in the Bitou Municipality even though it has just 1 seat, after the DA and ANC each obtained 6 seats. The United Front of the Eastern Cape obtained 7,248 ward votes and gained 1 seat in the Nelson Mandela Bay metro.
Clearly, the ANC as the ruling party is going to have to do a lot of soul searching if it is going to reverse the steady slide in support. Its 2017 conference is going to have to be a conference of renewal. But similarly, the left in this country is in ICU and is in desperate need of new ideas that go beyond the trotting out of outmoded dogma. The rise of the EFF should offer some inspiration but simply clutching at the coat tails of the EFF will not cut it. Firstly, it is not certain that the EFF will be able to keep things together now that it has to manage the complexity of local government and 761 councillors, many of whom are young and politically inexperienced. Secondly, there is a strong danger that the EFF will slip into a parliamentarism, forgetting that the life-blood of a left party lies in the struggles and campaigns of the “wretched of the earth”. A new left, which is anti-authoritarian, democratic and emancipatory, would be good for the EFF in countering its commandism and tendency to statism. Hopefully the local government elections will be a wakeup call for those that locate themselves in the paradigm that another South Africa is not just possible but an urgent necessity. Forward to renewal.