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Assessing and promoting civil and minority rights in South Africa.

[Source: Business Day Live by Gareth van Onselen.]

After what seems like an eternity of campaigning, the local government elections now looms large. Soon it will be over and our minds will turn to their implications.

The two biggest outcomes are success and failure and it’s possible to plot what that would look like for the three biggest parties: the ANC, DA and EFF.

The ANC is perhaps the most curious of the three because, whatever the public and press make of its result, it will be the party’s reaction to it that determines the consequences.

The ANC has been losing support for some time now, but it refuses to look in the mirror. Its downward spiral has, at its heart, its president, whose conduct has divided as much as it has damaged.

If the ANC does badly in the polls — say, it falls to 55% or less — this would mean it also loses control of one or two key metros, of which Nelson Mandela Bay and Tshwane seem the most likely.

The ANC is due to elect a new president and so it has an accountability mechanism, of a sort, built into its existing programme. Any failure at the polls would be transferred to that internal election down the line. The interim period will be messy.

Opposition parties — the DA and EFF in particular — have sought to make this election a referendum of President Jacob Zuma, and it would be difficult for the ANC not to attribute a drop in support to anything other than its leader. But it would have to be the ANC itself that came to that conclusion. It is a narrative already well-established elsewhere. Fraught and tense as internal politics is in the ANC, a bad election result would intensify the schisms.

It is difficult to say what success would look like for the ANC. Not to lose any metros outside of Cape Town would be a start. It is almost impossible not to predict the party losing some national support. So even its success could be a relative failure.

But power and patronage talks loudest in the ANC and thousands rely on the Nelson Mandela Bay and Tshwane administrations for jobs. If they can be secured again for the ruling party, that will bring some small relief. Perhaps none of this is enough for Zuma to emerge from the election as a force for growth. But beggars can’t be choosers and, if the ANC is to keep any semblance of internal unity, patronage is the drug that numbs its pain.

By contrast, the consequences for the DA are easier to define. Success would see it challenge the 30% mark but, critically, that would have to be accompanied by victory in a metro outside of Cape Town. If it achieves that, its leader Mmusi Maimane will become entrenched as a messiah, a reputation the party has for sometime now already indulged. He was elected with almost 90% of the vote at the DA’s federal congress but the real test of a leader is an election.

But failure to win anything outside of Cape Town and only marginal growth could have dire consequences for the DA. If the party cannot make significant inroads into ANC support, when the majority party is in this bad a condition, you get the sense it never will. Over the long term, voters would probably have the same reaction. With the prospect of a new ANC president, there is more, not less, reason to believe that the ANC will eventually renew itself.

Failure would necessitate introspection on the DA’s part, not only about the mechanics of this election, its strategy and tactics, but about the opposition project in SA more generally.

If the country wants a better balance of power, the point would have arrived when it would seem necessary to ask: is the DA the best vehicle to achieve this, from an opposition perspective, or is something entirely new required? A third way?

Here is an irony then: this election can only bring failure for the ANC. But there is a possibility a small failure would be interpreted as a success. For the DA, this election can bring only success. But small success will be seen as a big failure.

This is the contradictory world the two biggest parties occupy. And it would seem the line in the sand is to be found in Nelson Mandela Bay and Tshwane.

The EFF suffers none of this complexity. It has never contested a local government election and so it has no mark against which it can be measured. There is only the 6.6% it secured in the 2014 polls.

But local and national government elections are profoundly different and the two should not be held up to one another, primarily because turnout inevitably favours opposition parties in local government elections, so they perform disproportionately well.

The EFF seems set to grow. If it could roughly double its support, however inaccurate that comparison, to between 10% and 12% of voters, this would be an outright success. There is an outside chance it could find itself with enough power — particularly in Tshwane — to determine the government, should it be determined by a coalition.

It is difficult to imagine any scenario in which this election will not be interpreted as a success for the EFF. Whatever the election results, the ANC would seem to have only one path in front of it — and it leads to the election of a new leader. For the DA, the result will open up one of two paths: to greater internal unity and strength and the possibility of a serious challenge at provincial, possibly even national level in 2019 and, in the other direction, to serious organisation introspection and doubts about the viability of the opposition project generally and in its current form. Both might flow from success in the polls; that is the cruelty of South African politics.

For the EFF, carefree and seemingly without any negative consequences, this election constitutes yet another stepping-stone for its leader, Julius Malema.

Ultimately, there is a cap on the EFF’s potential market. The number of people interested in radical socialism is not indefinite and, in 2019, we are likely to have a more meaningful idea of what it is.

But in the interim, as the party finds its feet and consolidates what support is available to it, 2016 will be a tick in the margin. And Malema will face none of the pressure or consequences that face Zuma and Maimane.

South Africa at a Glance
57 700 000 (mid 2018 estimate)
4.5% y/y in May 2019 (CPI) & +6.4 y/y in May 2019 (PPI)
-3.2% q/q (1st quarter of 2019)
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