South Africa’s municipal elections 2021 – to take place on November 1 – have been labelled “the most unpredictable ever”. And while we have heard this being said of other previous elections too, this time the description seems to be more apt, more believably on the mark. It really seems like anything is possible.
This time around there are two major elephants in the election room: voter apathy/protest and uncertainty. But neither exist in a vacuum and both are very much the product of an escalation of negative trends and events that, unless they are urgently and systematically addressed, threaten to ultimately render democratic elections in South Africa into nice-to-have but obsolete exercises in social futility.
The Independent Electoral Commission of SA (IEC) has reported 26,217,703 registered voters for this election, fewer than the 2016 registration of 26,333,353, which translates into only some 65% of SA Statistics’ estimated 40 million eligible citizens being registered. That’s down 10% from the 75% who were registered in 2016.
Some of this can be attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic, the lockdowns and the resultant limited IEC registration drive and lack of campaigning opportunities for parties and candidates. But the bulk of it may well be due to apathy and/or protest, a phenomenon that seems to grow with each election. It’s also part of a global trend where fed-up people would rather vote with their feet.
In a robust and dynamic democracy people go out to vote. But apathy sets in, and people don’t bother to vote when things are going exceedingly well and there’s no perceived need for urgent change, or conversely, when things are going exceedingly bad and there’s little hope of an election changing anything. It’s clear that hope has dwindled in South Africa since 2016. In the case of a protest stay-away vote, unlike what the politically woke influencers will tell us, not voting is also a form of voting. In large numbers, it represents a strong expression of disgust when the system fails you or none of the parties or their representatives meet with your standards and expectations. But especially so where one party has grown to be wholly dominant over time, as in South Africa.
The uncertainty in our current election dilemma and the anticipated antipathy towards voting is the result of the volatility and devastation of the recent past from which we are expected to emerge to go and cast our votes. Behind us lie the abrupt end of the post-1994 golden years, followed by the “nine wasted years” of state capture and the almost unbelievable escalation of corruption in almost every imaginable entity or place, now even extending to the issuing of degrees and diplomas at UNISA.
At the same time local government and service delivery – the battleground of these elections – crumbled and sank away in the sewage-filled potholes on the streets of our many dying towns. The Auditor-General’s 2019/20 municipal audit gave only 27 out of 257 councils a clean audit, with many receiving the worst scorecard possible. Onetime world-class state-owned entities degenerated and Eskom’s mandate of delivering reliable, affordable electricity to industry and the masses became a horrible myth, and with all of this the developmental dream vanished.
Then the South African economy entered seriously troubled waters, downgraded to junk status by global credit rating agencies…an economy that had thrived under Mandela and Mbeki. This was accompanied by the devastating and bitter internal battles that tore the governing ANC apart and brought governance almost to a standstill in many respects. Delivery, development and growth became unfulfilled clichés while unemployment, poverty and inequality became the appalling monuments of our time.
On top of this, to make matters immensely worse, the Covid-19 pandemic and the economically devastatingly lockdowns arrived, with the government’s management thereof as well as its handling of the subsequent national vaccination drive, raising serious questions at times. These related not only to public health matters, but also to the economy, social welfare, democracy and the mettle of our constitution. A further devastating nail in the coffin was the eruption of riots, destruction and looting in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng on a scale not seen before, something a very embarrassed ANC government is trying to sweep under the carpet as the party calls on voters to “trust us again”.
It is from this very low and dark base that we emerge to hold elections that should by every reasonable standard offer a suffering citizenry a fresh turning point, a new beginning, perhaps at last giving substance to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s “new dawn”. Will it do that? The signs are not good.
Trust in our institutions and political system are at a low. An Afrobarometer survey conducted in August found that local government was at the very bottom of the pile – trusted “somewhat” or “a lot” by only 24% of respondents. Equally, trust in our political parties is rock bottom. As mentioned, there’s real threat in this to our constitutional democracy and elections.
This was demonstrated in Afrobarometer’s finding that two-thirds or 67% of South Africans would opt for forfeiting elections altogether if a non-elected government could provide security, housing, and jobs. Of these 46% said they would be ‘very willing’ to do so, with this option receiving more support among younger and more educated respondents. A frightening one-party prospect indeed.
Also as mentioned, apathy is running high and a large stayaway vote is expected to punish and leave the ANC more vulnerable than ever before. For the ANC the flopping of labour ally COSATU’s call to a national strike while the federation’s nemesis, the workerist-leaning left wing NUMSA’s steel sector strike gained enormous traction, must be worrying. COSATU and the workers who belong to its affiliated unions have historically been a major part of the ANC’s election war chest and grassroots forces. The radical EFF would find this encouraging.
And although pre-election opinion polls are lacking this time around (probably because of Covid), the one seemingly credible poll conducted by Ipsos in August has the ANC’s support plunging to a disastrous 34.9%. On the campaign trail the face of the ANC, President Cyril Ramaphosa, has frequently met with popular dissent from aggrieved citizens. We only see you at election times; where are you when we face immense and many problems, was an oft repeated accusation the president had to hear.
The Ipsos poll pegs the DA’s support at 12.7% and the EFF at 10.3%. The poll found only 7 out of 10 voters would actually vote, while other research indicates an even more alarming picture. Nonetheless, of these, when asked to choose a party if an election were held tomorrow, 49.3% would vote for the ANC, 17.9% for the DA and 14.5% for the EFF. This means in many areas there will be no outright winners and local government is heading towards a raft of governing coalitions, often unworkable ones as experience since 2016 has shown us. As in recent by-elections, it seems the EFF is the only party winning some ground. That could end up giving this populist, radical party a stronger but arguably more disruptive voice in local government. But cash-strapped, it too faces an uphill battle against Covid and a cynical electorate.
None of the 3 metros that were governed by coalitions after 2016 remained stable, with participating parties, mayors and other elected officials frequently changing. Instead of delivering good governance and services, these metro councils became sites of constant political battles, even to the point of one councillor smashing a glass jug on another’s head and others firing gun shots. Then there are also a number of new parties appearing on the ballot for the first time, some with a chance of gaining a significant slice of the vote. The variables are many and add to the uncertainty.
While most of us expect change including in respect of the calibre and moral ethics of parties and candidates, nothing has changed. This much is clear from the endless stream of squabbles over candidate lists and the rising number of shootings of candidates and other politicians in the run-up to the elections.
Political operators don’t shoot each other for the civic privilege of serving their communities and improving lives; they shoot each other to secure well-remunerated positions, to gain control of public funds and tenders, and for illicit access to lucrative business opportunities, to feed their greed and their lust for material power. This is the heretic mark of a democracy gone rogue where gangster politicians compete to rule.
Voters or citizens are not blind to this state of affairs and have already reverted back to that old effective tool of the apartheid era: protest. In ever growing numbers they have been voting with their feet to try and change what they cannot achieve through a heavily compromised official political enterprise. Here are just a few examples of where the real voting is taking place, especially when it comes to the coalface of local government and service delivery:
South Africans marched in their thousands until the devastating era of Jacob Zuma and state-capture was ended by an embattled ANC.
Students have intermittently held South African higher-education campuses hostage for several years forcing government to address their demands and grievances which are universal yet also basic and local.
Landless and homeless people need little encouragement to invade and occupy land or houses in urban areas whenever an opportunity arises.
Service delivery protests in multiple towns around the country have risen dramatically since 2004 culminating in unprecedented numbers in 2018 and 2019 before the Covid lockdown of 2020 brought the numbers significantly down – but Municipal IQ now reports that “service delivery protests have increased in number, and intensity, over recent months and weeks” and that “it is important to remember that individual protests like those in Manguang and Harrismith have been highly disruptive, affected a large number of communities, and have been sustained for many days, and even weeks”.
Escalating industrial action (despite COSATU’s national strike largely flopping) with strikes and other industrial actions ranging from those in the steel sector, to SAA, ANC employees, municipal workers from Tshwane to George, and many more.
And last but by far not least, the recent rioting, destruction and widespread looting of shops, factories, warehouses, malls, offices and more by marauding mobs across KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.
In respect of service delivery protests, one should also note what Karen Heese, Economist at Municipal IQ, suggests: “It seems likely that 2021 may buck the trend of subdued service delivery protests during local elections as we have seen in the past. This may be a function of political factionalism, but more than anything as a result of the severe socio-economic pressures, such as unemployment, against floundering municipal services.” Again, it’s clear where the real voting occurs.
When posed the question what could bring non-voters to the polls on November 1, I could not think of a single valid response or suggestion, other than that it’s probably far too late for that. The cynical rejection of systems and institutions no longer trusted has already reached the point of no return for these elections. Perhaps even for the next elections in 5 years’ time.
What needs to be done to win back the trust of the voters, includes but is not limited to
truly cleaning up corruption and prosecuting all involved regardless of political or other affiliation;
recovering the national wealth that was stolen or squandered during 9 “wasted years”;
building houses for the millions still waiting;
restoring water supply and fixing the roads of so many towns;
removing the red tape and over regulation that is stifling small business, investment and entrepreneurship;
getting Eskom fixed to deliver reliable power at a reasonable price;
ensuring quality and easily accessible community-based health services and not some grandiose socialist health scheme;
effectively reducing poverty and inequality;
ending cadre-deployment as a prerequisite for creating an efficient, professional and independent public service;
ending debilitating obsessions with ideology and race to attract foreign direct investment on a massive scale, growing the economy and creating jobs for the 34.4% of South Africans who are jobless (narrow definition);
bringing down the murder, robbery, rape, gender and child violence rates to something resembling a “normal” society;
depoliticising the judiciary and other key institutions like the Public Protector; and
getting a grip on the vaccination drive to end the pandemic and return to normal economic and social life.
There is much more. But this, in short, is South Africa’s reality check as we head to the polling booths on November 1.
Stef Terblanche is an independent Cape Town-based political analyst/consultant and journalist.