Needless to say, the past year has brought havoc into our lives, and no less so also in the political life of the country. The state of play right now is very unsettled – socially, economically and politically. From this precarious point in history, we have yet somehow to arrive at municipal elections to be held some time between August and November.
All elections have the potential of turning into game changers, and this one’s no different. It could set us off on a new political path or it could be a damp squib with nothing changing. What is very different this time though, is the unsettled space and dynamics from where we depart on the run-up to elections – a journey that will take us on a winding road full of bumps, possible detours and uncertainties to our date with the ballot box and destiny.
Will we even get there?
The biggest potential obstacle in the way is of course still the Covid-19 pandemic. An effective vaccine rollout reaching set targets in the set time, is in no way guaranteed. Already there are warnings of a third wave of infections approaching; there could be a fourth, even a fifth, or perhaps even more before we eventually get the virus under control.
For now, the simplest, most optimistic scenario – and the one most people are banking on – is that the vaccines will bring the pandemic under control and elections will be held as planned, without hitches. That’s quite possible, but, and herein lies the rub, we still don’t really know what the virus and its mutations will do, and we don’t know how effective the current vaccines will be in the long run. There may be other possible unknown factors and variables too. These factors could well justify a return to stricter lockdown levels, followed by the indefinite cancellation of elections.
That could potentially upset things horribly around the holding of these elections, with the kind of political chaos arising that our Constitution does not nearly foresee. However, the Local Government Municipal Electoral Act 27 of 2000 does allow the relevant Minister to postpone local elections for no more than 90 days if the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) believes free and fair elections are not possible on the previously chosen date which itself must also fall within a legislatively prescribed timeframe. If all the factors and actors don’t play together, things could potentially get messy, even nasty.
What the IEC and major parties say
So, will we have elections? If it’s up to the IEC, the answer is yes. Emerging from their Covid slumber in September, IEC officials got busy preparing and engaged with role-players, sending out the message that local government elections will almost certainly be held between 3 August and 3 November 2021. That was despite both the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the governing African National Congress (ANC) indicating their preference for the polls to be postponed. Some smaller parties shared their concern, including the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFF) and the United Democratic Movement (UDM).
The EFF wanted a postponement, failing which it called for the Covid-restricted political space to be reopened for normal campaigning ahead of elections – specifically allowing mass gatherings and physical attendance of sessions in Parliament and other legislatures. These, after all, are two types of events the EFF uses most effectively for publicity and consequently for garnering mass support, apart from land invasions and speeches on the steps of courthouses. When President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a relaxation of restrictions to level 1 recently, that wish was basically granted – it’s probably as close to normal as we will get until the vaccines produce effective mass results.
For the ANC the picture is more complicated. Failing a return to normal political campaigning, it wanted a postponement, yet now that restrictions were relaxed, it has reservations about it all, citing health protocols. But the real reason behind its flip-flopping is politically far more loaded and complicated. This is dealt with below.
By-elections and electoral law reforms
Meanwhile, 14 municipal by-elections scheduled for April 21 and more by-elections on May 19, may not provide a reliable measure of actual voter support, but it could be a handy test run for how things will work, come the main elections. Meanwhile, the IEC, at the time of writing, still had to meet with political parties to discuss these matters, as it had promised to do.
Also still outstanding, are the changes to electoral laws to allow individuals to run for office, as ordered by the Constitutional Court, and other revisions. The latter includes voters on the voters’ roll who don’t have verified home addresses, another issue that was targeted by a court for correction several years ago.
Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi recently urged parliament to urgently finalise these electoral law changes needed for the local government elections, failing which he said, “we will be on very, very dangerous grounds in terms of preparations for the local government elections”. That’s definitely another red light.
Current state of play
As mentioned, for the ANC the matter of the upcoming elections is far more complicated than for other parties at this stage, with the possible exception of the Democratic Alliance (DA). The latter also faces an uncertain future after several years of debilitating internal turf, power, policy and leadership battles, accentuated by the acrimonious departure of its national leader, Mmusi Maimane and its Johannesburg mayor, Herman Mashaba, among others.
In the 2019 general election, these developments caused the DA to bleed substantial support from its white base to the Freedom Front Plus (FF+) and from its black urban support back to the ANC or other black-dominated parties. Now, as a smaller DA with a new still largely untested leader and a recommitment to its old liberal values, it faces an uncertain future.
For the ANC the outlook is as uncertain as the current available measurements of support are unreliable. In recent months in by-elections – never a good barometer for full elections – the ANC won some ground here and there, while the EFF remained more or less unchanged, and the DA seemed to be losing ground. However, an Ipsos survey conducted between July and September last year when public freedom was restricted by stricter levels of lockdown, contradicted these trends. It showed that the ANC had lost support last year while the DA and EFF had increased theirs. Which should one believe?
Commonly-held opinion at present seems to dictate that the ANC will be punished by the voters in the coming municipal elections for ongoing high levels of corruption (especially in the recent Covid-19 related scandal with investigations still going on); the ongoing bitter factional battles in the party with divisions around leadership, policies and corruption growing ever wider; and the public health devastation and social and financial hardships, business closures, job losses and loss of personal freedoms caused by Covid-19 and government’s responses in fighting it.
The voting public also has very mixed feelings over government’s financial support during this difficult time. For the ANC this negative outlook could be exacerbated if the vaccine rollout is seen to be lagging further or failing. There certainly seems to be much concern over this state of affairs in ANC circles.
More potential bumps, detours in the road
The ANC also uniquely finds itself in a cauldron of boiling political and related issues not faced as much or as directly by the other parties, but largely of its own making. These issues and events, individually or in combinations, could have a serious impact on the political trajectory going forward this year. In a worst-case scenario, things could unravel to the point where it could cost the ANC dramatic loss of voter support or even ultimately, but perhaps as yet unlikely, cause the government to postpone the elections until things have settled down.
But of course, if the ANC manages to resolve these things or keep the lid on them, the trajectory may go the opposite way. Nonetheless, these issues and events will make the road from here to elections a very bumpy one indeed, with a strong possibility of potholes and detours having to be navigated that could cause serious breakdowns, both for the ANC and the holding of elections, but in broader terms also for the entire country.
These issues include the economy and the aftermath of the state-of-the-nation address (SONA) and the Budget. Both events were rather lacklustre and lacking in many respects, with a number of pressing issues merely being kicked down the road to the Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement (MTBPS) in October. Important will be whether elections will take place before or after the MTBPS. Furthermore, some of the much-needed cost-cutting austerity measures referred to in the Budget and in other speeches, have already been reversed. A prime example is budget cuts made to different departments, and how it helped ignite the current student revolt over university fees and debts, causing a reversal that will see other departments and programmes being undermined.
The same could happen with austerity efforts to reduce the public sector wage bill given the threat of a debilitating public sector strike during the current wage negotiations in the sector. Any further derailment or more handicapping pressures in the economic sphere, or financial hardships passed on to the public, will have serious consequences, undermining the government’s recovery and growth plan, with knock-on effects.
Other adverse impacts may come from the ongoing factional battles in the ANC and the National General Council (NGC) scheduled for May, where the RET faction opposing Ramaphosa may launch an attempt to unseat him at next year’s elective National Conference. Another concerns the ANC’s accelerated or intensified implementation of Radical Economic Transformation (RET) with various underlying tactical objectives. Some of these objectives relate to the factional power struggles in the ANC; some to the ideological tensions with the ANC’s allies, labour federation COSATU and the SA Communist Party (SACP); some are related to the NGC; some to winning votes in the elections; and some to a rather cash-strapped ANC securing wealthy donors ahead of elections.
Other issues that could easily impact this picture and contain a high potential for more division and disruption, are the final run of the Zondo inquiry into state capture – which is already exposing worsening tension lines – and the current system of de facto dual governance represented by a National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC). The latter too has some overlap with factional dynamics and is tied closely to a drive towards greater centralised political control by the ANC.
There are more issues and events that could impact the road to elections. But suffice its to say that from among all of the issues raised above, there could emerge significant challenges to the holding of local elections as planned.
And even if they go ahead on schedule, many of these issues will find themselves highlighted in bitter battles on the electoral stage. The final outcome could be election results that will dramatically change our political landscape, more so than in 2016. But then again, after all the fighting dies down and the dust settles, we may also find that nothing has changed. The only certainty is that the road to elections will be a bumpy one.
Stef Terblanche is an independent Cape Town-based political analyst/consultant and journalist. He writes in his personal capacity.