The African National Congress (ANC) has never been more unpopular, and the Democratic Alliance (DA), in strategic terms, has never been more at sixes and seven since, after the 1994 and 1999 elections, in its incarnation as the Democratic Party (DP), it did the re-envisioning exercise which delivered to it the position of official opposition and that of second largest political party in the country. Furthermore, the gap between the procedural aspects and the substantive dimensions of our democracy has never been wider. This is the context in which the local government elections will be held at the beginning of November. Also, the three factors I have alluded to will, together, constitute the main driver behind the number of voters who will bother to cast their votes and will , in addition, shape their voting preferences. With regard to both the voter turnout and voting patterns, the outcome is going to tell an interesting story about the ANC, the DA, the state of our electoral politics, as well as, the real and/or perceived state of our democracy.
There is something ironic about where the ANC finds itself: During the first decade of democracy, the ANC benefitted immensely from our political reality of single-party dominance, a reality delivered to our post-apartheid setting by what was a decidedly uncompetitive electoral politics and weak party system. This, in turn, delivered two things that have compromised the ANC’s position as the dominant party in our electoral politics, namely; (1) institutional uncertainty and (2) a growing ambivalence towards democratic values on the part of the ruling party, as well as, desensitisation towards the interests and aspirations of citizens, especially those who were oppressed during the period of apartheid colonialism, who are the dominant component in its support base or what the ANC, in its theory of revolutionary change refers to as ‘the key motive force’ of what it calls the National Democratic Revolution.
When we talk about the procedural aspects of our constitutional order, we are talking about the fact that, post-apartheid, particularly with respect to the victims of apartheid colonialism and neo-apartheid today, democratic rights such as the right to vote have been extended to all citizens. Furthermore, freedoms such as freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of the media, post-apartheid, are part of our constitutional edifice notwithstanding the fact that our post-apartheid order is a social and economic order that is neo-apartheid in content. Despite our neo-apartheid reality, we have done better on the procedural front than we have on the substantive.
When we talk about the substantive dimensions of our democracy, we are referring to the fact that citizens do. not eat a constitution. It cannot give them shelter. It cannot keep them warm. It cannot feed them. It cannot give them good health. It cannot give them jobs. It is a piece of paper on which many a beautiful and inspiring word is written. As I have argued many times before, words are not what they describe. The challenge in our democracy is to bridge the gap between words, on the one hand, and what they describe, on the other. Our democracy must, therefore, deliver more than the beautiful and inspiring words in our constitution. It must deliver a better life to all who live in it, particularly those who were victims of apartheid and are now victims of neo-apartheid.
In this local government election and the 2024 general election, the voter turnout and the electoral outcome will reflect the extent to which our democracy and the ruling ANC have failed our people.
What we should expect, therefore, as was the case in the 2019 general election, is a large number of voters to stay away on Election Day. In 2019, 18 million voters who were eligible to vote spent their time at places other than a voting station. In the 2016 local government elections, we saw a voter turnout much higher than in any other local government election since the advent of the current system of local government in December 2000. While it is no longer interesting to argue that the ANC is in a state of decline in qualitative terms at a a strategic and moral level, as well as, with regard to the chronically poor quality of leadership it avails to its members, supporters and the country, the qualitative decline and the social distance between the ruling party and its core constituencies are real and are the reasons I believe the ANC will suffer further erosions in electoral support. Therefore, the preponderance of those who are not going to bother to turn up on voting day are ANC supporters.
In other words, the ANC will, once again, achieve the dubious distinction of making the most significant contribution to a lower voter turnout. On the other hand, traditional DA voters will turn up in significant numbers but some of this support will, as it happened in 2019, gravitate towards the Freedom Front Plus. In other words, white voters for whom voting for what are traditionally regarded as black parties has never been an option, will abandon the DA but it is neither the ANC nor the Economic Freedom Front (EFF) even if Cyril Ramaphosa or Julius Malema was to be reincarnated as Nelson Mandela that will benefit from this. Frankly, even if voting for the ANC or EFF would better advance so-called minority interests, these voters would not vote for these two political parties because of their complexion. This feature of our electoral politics is not going to change any time soon, definitely not in this year’s local government elections. What will account more significantly for the outcome of this year’s local government elections are the choices and behaviour of black voters. As I have already argued, a big chunk of them is going to stay at home. Those among them who bother to vote on the day, will split and spread themselves more between the ANC, DA and EFF than they will between the rest of the other political parties. Notwithstanding the fact that more black voters will abandon the DA in this election, it will remain the second largest party in local government. I expect the EFF to remain saddled with the conundrum of growing support in the context of performing below its potential. The DA too may underperform because it has suffered a qualitative decline in its leadership since the departure of Helen Zille as party leader in 2015. The new DA leader, John Steenhuisen is not the answer to this problem. Unlike Zille, he will not be able to reach beyond the DA’s traditional support base and, unlike former party leader Tony Leon, he will not be able to preside effectively over internal tensions at a racial, ideological and policy level, a dynamic that, as a challenge to the party, deepened during the leadership of Mmusi Maimane. The return of Zille as chair of the Da’s Federal Council is not going to solve these problems. The solution is a much deeper re-envisioning exercise and this must happen before the 2024 general election.
For the ANC, the Covid-19 crisis has delivered both success and disaster.. When it comes to the outcome of by-elections, the image crisis caused to the ruling party by PPE procurement corruption scandals did not result in the kind of electoral losses that were anticipated. This may simply mean that the by-election results around the country since the advent of the Covid-19 crisis should not be seen as a reliable predictor of what is going to happen in the local government elections. This may be so because the ANC may do much worse or better than the by-election results suggest. As a sample, I am not certain that the by elections are large enough. Furthermore, the conditions under which they were held were an outlier that falls outside the realm of regular expectations. But if you give me a choice between living in the ANC-run Emfuleni Municipality with its rivers of raw sewage, on the one hand, and making broad predictions about how the ANC will fare in these elections, on the other, with indecent alacrity I will say this: The ANC may win Buffalo City and Ethekwini bu not Johannesburg, Cape Town, Tshwane, Nelson Mandela Bay and Ekirhuleni, and may struggle to win Rustenburg
Will these local government elections change anything? Will they deliver a better life to those citizens who are plagued by conditions of underdevelopment?
In relation to changing the lot of citizens for the better, elections are a meaningless ritual. As some have argued in the past, liberal democracy is ‘thin’ democracy and South Africa is firmly in throes of the phenomenon of a narrow electoralism that, in the foreseeable future, is unlikely to bridge the gap between the beautiful and inspiring words in the Constitution and what the words themselves describe. Also, in the foreseeable future, the ritual of elections is unlikely to bridge the gap between the procedural and substantive dimensions of our democracy. If I am right, we must rethink our idea of democracy and find a new way of doing politics. Given these sentiments, am I going to vote? Absolutely! I will do so not because we fought in a struggle for freedom. I will do so because I have decided to suspend thought and reason. Otherwise, i cannot vote with a clear conscience.
Aubrey Matshiqi is a political analyst and writes in his personal capacity.