The downward trend in the electoral performance of the African National Congress (ANC) continues. In the 2004 general election, the ANC garnered 69.69% of the national vote thus achieving the electoral milestone of winning a two-thirds majority. The first thing the ANC did when it won this two-thirds majority was to (re)assure the nation it would not amend the Constitution. It is now seventeen years later, but twenty years after this milestone, there is a very strong possibility that the ruling party will not be able to win more than 50% of the national vote in the 2024 general election. Was it worth it? Did the ANC benefit from twenty-seven years of appeasing white people? Is the ANC’s desperation for white approval – at a global and domestic level – not one of the reasons for its constant underperformance since 2009 – five years after its reassurance that it would not use its two-thirds majority to amend the Constitution? Today, the ANC is but a shadow of what it was in 2004 when, under the leadership of Thabo Mbeki, it achieved the milestone of winning a two-thirds majority? Today, the AMC needs a two-thirds majority if it is to keep some of the empty promises it is making to those who were victims of apartheid colonialism and now are victims of neo-apartheid given the fact that South Africa still belongs to those who conquered it. Was it worth it? Were the 2004 compromise and other compromises necessary when viewed from the perspective of another painful reality?
Those the ANC sought to appease have never and will never vote for it despite the back-breaking back-bending the ruling party has been doing since 1994. Even more painful, as we saw in the local government elections, must be the realisation that millions of voters who were part of the ANC’s core-constituency are choosing either not to vote or vote for other political parties. In other words, the ANC’s desperation for white approval, and the alienation of black people caused by this desperation, are two sides of the same coin. Those the ANC has been betraying, as well as, those on whose behalf the betrayal has occurred find the ANC alien to their interests. This is one of the stories the outcomes of the 2021 local government elections are telling us. There are many others.
Let us start with the story of the 2021 local government elections as told by the president of the country and the ANC, Cyril Ramaphosa, when he gave a frank account of what went wrong in these elections when he spoke to ANC members and supporters at the ‘Thank You’ rally of the ruling party in Soweto. Ramaphosa admitted that the performance of the ANC in the local government elections was its worst in an election since the advent of democracy in 1994. He also highlighted the fact that the ruling party had, for the first time, garnered less than 50% of the national popular vote. Furthermore, he argued that the low voter turnout of 46% was not only the lowest since 1994 but was a very strong message from ANC supporters who had decided to vote for neither the ruling party nor any other political party for that mafter. For Ramaphosa, there are two main reasons why, in this local government election, the ANC won an outright majority only in two metropolitan councils; namely, Mangaung in the Free State and Buffalo City in the Eastern Cape: First, the electoral underperformance was a function of the parlous state in which the ruling party finds itself. Second, the woefully dismal performance of the post-apartheid state at local level. The colourful language is mine not his.
As Ramaphosa himself avers, the voter turnout is telling us another story – a disturbing story. Just over 26 million South Africans were registered to vote in the local government elections but only 12.3 million of them turned up on voting day. This translates to a voter turnout of about 47%. In the 2019 general election 18 million South Africans who were
eligible to vote stayed away. Of these, half were registered and the rest were not. What should really perturb us is the participation rate – a figure that tells an even more disturbing story than the low voter turnout. While the voter turnout is the percentage of registered voters who turn up on voting day, the participation rate is the percentage of all South Africans who are eligible to vote who did turn up on the day. Obviously, the total number of citizens who are eligible to vote is higher than the number of registered voters. About 13 million South Africans who are edible to vote are not registered hence the participation rate for the local government elections should worry us immensely because only about a third of South Africans who are eligible to vote cast their votes on November 1. Why should this concern us?
A low participation rate is indicative of the level of confidence citizens have in the electoral process. The low voter turnout and the even lower participation rate sihgnal a disjuncture, in the subjective reality of voters, between elections and electoral outcomes, on the one hand, and their lived reality, on the other. Put succinctly, empirical evidence suggests that elections, as an instrument for effecting fundamental change in the lived reality of voters, are a very blunt weapon. As a result citizens see elections as nothing more than a pageant and ritual they must engage in every three years between local government elections and general election. The low voter turnout and participation rate are an indication of the extent to which citizens have become disengaged. But, without any sense of irony whatsoever, some political commentators and academics have made the astonishing claim that a low voter turnout is a sign that democracy is maturing. They point at so-called developed countries that have imposed the liberal democratic model and aesthetic on us as the source of their inspiration. How can a political order that continues to survive when the levels of consent from citizens are dwindling be deemed a good thing? Instead of celebrating the disengagement tof those who are eligible to vote, we should ask penetrating questions about the implications and possible consequences of citizen disengagement from electoral and democratic processes. What are the alternatives to engagement within the democratic process? While outside the formal institutional realm of political engagement citizens may come with creative ways to change their political, social and economic reality, there may be times when engagement outside such formal democratic processes and structures may cause social, political and economic instability simply because, in the context of citizen disengagement from electoral processes, the legitimacy of the state itself may be questioned with dire consequences for the polity. However, there are two things that should never happen in a truly democratic space: First, political engagement outside the formal and institutional realm of politics must never be dismissed as ‘deviant’ political behaviour. That would be decidedly anti-democratic. Second, elections must never be regarded as the sole instrument through which change can occur in the lives of citizens. That too would be decidedly anti-democratic.
That said, who were the winners and losers in last week’s local government elections?
In my view, Action SA and the Freedom Front Plus were the biggest winners, and the ANC and the Democratic Alliance (DA) were the biggest losers.
Action SA, a new political party led by former Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba, won sixteen seats in Johannesburg ahead of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) making it the third largest party in the city, after the ANC and the DA. The party achieved this remarkable feat in its first election on the back of Mashaba’s popularity in Johannesburg. Even more remarkable is the fact that Action SA was able to win support from white voters in what were the white suburbs of Johannesburg during apartheid. These are white voters who are unhappy with the DA but not comfortable with the FF Plus. This means that Action SA acted as a disrupter to both the DA and FF Plus. Given the fact that the party won
support among black voters too, its white supporters may become an albatross around its neck. Mashaba says Action SA stands for social justice and is pro-poor. Since white voters have not shown any preparedness to vote for parties whose support comes mainly from those who were oppressed during apartheid, it is highly unlikely that they will countenance navigating the tension between the apartheid impulses of the past and the neo-apartheid realities of today. In other words, in the end, they may succumb to the racial polarisation that the EFF and FF Plus may come to represent in our politics. In short, seeking white approval may compromise Mashaba’s standing among black voters who are thirsty for social justice, something the ANC, in its desperation to appease white people, has failed to quench.
As for the ANC, it is not unreasonable to surmise that, as has been the case in the past, it will give the country frank and honest analyses about why it underperformed again in these local government elections. What it will not be able to do is to come with an effective cure for the moral and qualitative decline that ills it. If this turns out to be the case, we must prepare ourselves for a coalition government at a national level after the 2024 general election.
Aubrey Matshiqi is a political analyst and writes in personal capacity.