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Assessing and promoting civil and minority rights in South Africa.

[Source: BDlive by Carol Paton.]

After such a bloody election result, how will the ANC respond? For everyone — ANC supporters, ANC opponents, business, labour, the poor, investors, fund managers and credit ratings agencies — this is the big question that hangs over the outcome.

Can the ANC hold on to power and how will it do so? Will it reflect and reform or dig in and use the power it still has to reassert itself through patronage in a more authoritarian and less democratic way?

And what does this election tell us about how the ANC’s support base has changed and how it might mutate further in the future?

First, the numbers. Nationally the ANC’s support has dropped from 62.9% in 2011 to 54.4% on the proportional representation ballot. This is the defining trend of the poll. It has lost its majority in four of the metros, prompting some commentators to conclude it has lost the urban vote and, like Zimbabwe’s Zanu (PF), will increasingly become a rural party.

But that analysis ignores the big swings away from the ANC in small towns and villages throughout the country. These swings are just as big as those in the metros, where the ANC’s percentage of support has always been lower, due, among other things, to a demographically more diverse population.

So while the swing away from the ANC in Gauteng since the 2011 provincial election was 14%, the more rural provinces showed a very similar decline, with ANC support dropping by 13% in Limpopo, in North West by 16%, in the Free State by 9% and in Mpumalanga by 8%. It grew only in KwaZulu-Natal and by a meagre 1%.

In the metros, the swing was due to three factors: a small growth in DA support in black wards; slightly larger but still small growth in support for the EFF; and the large number of traditional ANC voters in townships who didn’t turn up to vote.

As suburban, traditionally DA, voters turned out in large numbers, the big turnout differential between suburb and townships (as much as 18%) tipped the balance away from the ANC.

In the smaller cities and towns, a low turnout combined with a stronger showing by the EFF was mainly responsible for the ANC’s decline.

The KwaZulu-Natal trend is also important. As a power base for the ANC, it is growing in importance, with 24% of all the ANC’s votes coming from there compared to 19% in 2011 and 14% in 2006. This means that to stay in power, support from KwaZulu-Natal is critical.

The ANC’s public response thus far has been to say that it will “go back and reflect” and think about where it went wrong. It also, absurdly and mistakenly, excused the result as not that bad, with Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa erroneously claiming that in absolute numbers, ANC support had increased by 8-million people in the five years since the last local government election. This claim, it seems, was based on the ANC counting the total number of votes — both proportional representation and wards — rather than the total number of voters.

The issues on which to reflect are obvious: corruption, the social distance between leaders and the people and the most obvious of all — the image and conduct of President Jacob Zuma.

This is where the ruling party’s “reflection” will immediately run aground. The most recent time that the ANC was called upon to give judgment on its president, it took the fatal decision to close ranks around him — following the Constitutional Court’s judgment in April that found that Zuma had violated his oath of office to uphold the Constitution.

It also closed ranks following several allegations, even in its own ranks, of “state capture” by the Gupta family. The party shut down its inquiry into the family’s inappropriate influence on the office of the president barely before it had begun.

So what can it do differently now?

The stakes are now so much higher. Swathes of politicians at local, provincial and national level face having their careers cut short by the ANC’s failure at the polls.

To sit on a council as an ordinary councillor is a lifestyle far removed from governing one of SA’s biggest cities on a handsome salary, with career opportunities in the national Cabinet available some time in the future.

Such a decline in political fortune may mean that the fight to remove Zuma is once again on and stronger than before.

The ANC’s Gauteng leadership, who led the fight against Zuma the last time, can this time hope for at least some support from elsewhere in the country as provincial leaders take note of what their traditional voters have told them.

The SACP may face the same imperative. Its provincial leaders have been pushing the SACP’s elders in the central executive committee to take a stand against Zuma and demand his removal.

There is hope that with the electorate clearly unhappy, these two pockets of opposition can draw on a groundswell of support, that the other parts of the ANC and Cosatu will find increasingly difficult to ignore.

Zuma, though, has shown many times that he has no intention of leaving office any time soon. Faced with a fight for power, Zuma and his supporters — who make up an easy majority in the ANC’s national executive committee — have responded by consolidating and digging in.

After a brief and obviously regretted reversal after the appointment and unappointment of Des van Rooyen to the finance post, Zuma has consolidated and pushed ahead with his own agenda, pointedly ignoring commitments that he gave earlier this year to bring about the changes agreed to with business that could restore confidence in the government and help boost economic growth.

While it is possible that Zuma’s closest allies — the premier league (premiers of North West, Free State and Mpumalanga) together with KwaZulu-Natal ANC chairman Sihle Zikalala — could conspire to remove him, their difficulty is that they have no agreed-upon alternative candidate who could plausibly occupy his place and continue asserting their dominance within the ruling party.

What will give impetus to the instinct to dig in and sweep aside correcting influences is also the ambitious programme that Zuma and his allies still want to complete during his term of office.

Aside from the big one — the contract to build nuclear power plants — there are dozens of other transactions in the making from which much political rent can be extracted.

So far, it is this driving force, rather than the need to reform and unite the ANC and place it on a more sustainable course, that had fed the motivations of the Zuma administration.

His response will more likely be to consolidate his power through a significant Cabinet reshuffle in the wake of the election to prepare for the final push through to the ANC conference in 2017.

If this plays out, then there is no other way to renew the party but for the ANC’s internal factional battles to intensify.

At the last crossroads in April following the Nkandla judgment, ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe rationalised the ANC’s choice not to act against Zuma on the grounds that a call for the president to step down was “a call for the party to tear itself apart”.

This time, though, the ANC cannot close ranks.

To accept that Zuma should stay is to face losing Gauteng in the next national election.

But since he is not at all likely to go quietly, removing him risks damaging the support from KwaZulu-Natal, which is now the ANC’s biggest support base.

For the ANC, the stakes in its internal battle just got a lot higher.

With reform not a ready option, the party may indeed tear itself apart in the coming months.

South Africa at a Glance
58 780 000 (mid 2018 estimate)
4.5% y/y in June 2019 (CPI) & +5.8 y/y in June 2019 (PPI)
-3.2% q/q (1st quarter of 2019)
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