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Assessing and promoting civil and minority rights in South Africa.

[Source: Business Day Live by Karen Heese and Kevin Allan.]

Local government elections are to be held within 90 days of May 18, and registration is to take place on March 5 and 6. While mayoral candidates are being announced and electioneering is heating up, no one knows exactly when polling will take place.

As a result, the Treasury has provided guidance in a circular to sitting councils on the timetable that should be followed to pass this year’s budgets within required timeframes so as to ensure minimal disruption to municipal operations.

Why the lack of clarity on the date? Co-operative Governance Minister Desmond van Rooyen has indicated that he needs to ensure that municipal boundaries comply with a Constitutional Court ruling following the disputed Tlokwe by-election results.

But if the elections are held off to the second half of the 90-day period, and if there are very long queues at polling stations, what are the implications of holding elections in midwinter? Will some parties gain and others lose?

The dynamics of municipal elections are still evolving in postdemocratic SA, making this question a complex one to interrogate.

Local elections are typically less well-supported than national and provincial elections, not only in SA, but across the world. In last year’s national and provincial elections, there was a 73% turnout — a decline from 2009 and 2004’s 77%, but still within a healthy range.

The highest turnout in a municipal election in democratic SA was the 58% achieved in 2011 (the most recent municipal poll). It is encouraging, however, that the turnout — unlike in national and provincial polls — increased considerably from the 48% of registered voters who cast their vote in 2000 and again in 2006.

Even the Electoral Commission of SA (IEC), which targeted a turnout of 40% of the voters roll in 2011, was taken by surprise. This support bodes well for this year’s municipal polls, but will the timing dent the prospects of success?

Intuitively, one would suspect that voters are less likely to turn out in inclement weather, especially when there are fewer daylight hours, but historical data show that in SA, some of the best turnouts — May 2011 local elections and June 1999 provincial and national elections — were held in the more hostile winter months.

While last year’s provincial and national government elections in May did show a slight decline in turnout from 2004 and 2009’s April dates — by about 4% — it’s not clear whether this could be attributed to the weather alone.

If weather plays a role in deterring turnout, it is likely that wealthier voters would have an easier time reaching polling stations — they use private and not public transport, for instance. Traditional Democratic Alliance (DA) voters fit such a profile, and a winter poll should, therefore, boost support for DA candidates.

But there is a risk of rising discontent in winter months. Despite previous election trends, the winter months are prone to higher levels of protest, and are possibly compounded by SA’s annual “strike season”, which starts in June. This may affect turnout figures and also influence results.

Municipal IQ’s Municipal Hotspots Monitor, which has been aggregating service delivery protests between 2009 and last year, shows that the most protests take place in July. Should these protesters’ unhappiness be expressed at the polls, then opposition parties are in line to garner more support.

In particular, it is plausible that should the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) manage to register large numbers of residents in informal settlements in time for the elections, and then mobilise these supporters to turn out to vote, there might be opposition gains in urban areas.

A major consideration is whether voters in such constituencies will be able to register for the elections — whether they will be in a position to access the documents required by the IEC. A particularly difficult issue for residents of informal settlements, especially those who have recently arrived in the area, is providing proof of residence.

It is important that solutions be found to attend to this stumbling block to ensure the enfranchisement of all South Africans. In many instances, protests in informal settlements are staged by residents who feel unable to be “heard” or represented by democratic processes.

In several metros across the country, marginal gains by smaller parties might not be insignificant, given the potential for the formation of opposition coalitions.

This presents a potential threat to the African National Congress (ANC), especially in fast-growing urban areas. Here, there are many large informal settlements in which living conditions become particularly difficult in winter months due to flooding, fires and cold.

It may, therefore, be of particular interest to political parties to study the meteorological predictions for this winter. While a particularly cold winter might present an opportunity for gains by the EFF, a wet winter in the Western Cape might bolster support for the ANC there.

So, where are the leverage points for political parties to consider this year?

Disaggregated results from the 2011 municipal elections show that significantly more women — almost six out of every 10 voters — turned up at the polls than men. It is conceivable that female candidates may be important in appealing to this constituency, and it is noteworthy, therefore, that the DA’s Patricia de Lille stands out as a rare high-profile female metro mayoral candidate.

The data from the 2011 municipal elections also show that after the 50-79 age group, those in the 18-19 age group are most likely to vote. Particularly cold or wet weather could affect the elderly, but probably not the youth, who may be mobilised against the ANC should the #FeesMustFall campaign translate into votes against the governing party. A major consideration with such born-frees is whether they register to vote.

There is little doubt that this year’s elections will be fascinating.

Will bad weather dent support by older voters? Will disenchanted students represent a voting bloc in urban areas? Will women be attracted to voting for a strong female candidate? Will a lull in service delivery protests in Gauteng translate into support for the ANC at the polls? Are service delivery protests and election results even linked?

Or will disenchanted voters just not bother to vote this year? This is the prospect that should be keeping the larger parties, which rely on a large turnout of supporters for success, awake at night.

This risk is not insignificant. The ANC, for instance, has been hit by several squabbles, disagreements and outright rebellions in its ranks in the last few years. In the past few days, the Congress of South African Trade Unions has threatened to withhold its support for the ANC in the election in protest over recent retirement fund reforms.

The one clear lesson from historical data is that, until now, South Africans have been committed to exercising their democratic right to vote.

This means the IEC is likely to face a busy time registering voters in advance of the elections, and political parties will need to work hard to capture their support on election day, whenever that happens.

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Heese is Municipal IQ’s economist, while Allan is its MD.

South Africa at a Glance
57 700 000 (mid 2018 estimate)
4.0% y/y in January 2019 (CPI) & +4.1 y/y in January 2019 (PPI)
1.4% q/q (4th quarter of 2018)
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