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South African Elections: What Provincial and Municipal Results Mean for the Future of the ANC

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On May 7, 2014, 17 million South African streamed to the polls to cast their votes for National, Provincial, and Municipal level leaders. Except for a few minor disturbances and one large protest in the Johannesburg township of Alexandra, the day went without incident. The elections are being hailed as an "overwhelming" or "decisive" victory for the African National Congress (ANC). In fact, by almost any democratic standard, the ANC did blow its opposition away, taking 62.15% of the national vote and winning 8 out of 9 provinces, as well as the vast majority of municipalities. One can forgive the street celebrations that burst out in Johannesburg and elsewhere, and the speech the President Zuma made taking his naysayers to task with no small show of swag. The ANC is fully in charge, even though its parliamentary majority has been chipped down a bit, and shows every sign of striding into the next 5-year term with confidence.

For those looking for the warning signals or signs of weakness – and there are many, including ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantasha who after the election expressed causes for concern for the party's future – they must look to, as Aubrey Matshaqi put it, a "below-the-surface analyses of the complex and contradictory messages contained in the general election results."  No doubt, at the national level, the party is sitting pretty, and Zuma can easily gloat over the parties who are no longer in parliament.  But, the ANC's share of the vote dropped around 11% over the last decade and is almost one million below the number that Nelson Mandela achieved in 1994, despite huge population growth.  The official opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA), got 22.23% of the vote, and the radical Economic Freedom Front (EFF), got 6.36%.  While this doesn't challenge the ANC's majority – in fact all opposition party results added together only come to about 37% – it is an ever-increasing force smashing against the citadel of the ANC.

Signs of trouble?

This does not signal a probable DA victory in the next national elections of 2019.  But the causes for concern that Mantasha noted probably lie in what will happen at the provincial, and more important yet, municipal levels in the next few years, with elections scheduled there for 2016.  The ANC is being squeezed left (EFF) and right (DA) in a manner that seems like it may intensify.  The party might have trouble on its hands if the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) continues to implode after the elections, only to emerge as a Workers' Party and fuses with the EFF.

While overall the municipal votes went to the ANC, the polls showed a worrisome closeness in some of the party's most valued strongholds.  Gauteng, with Johannesburg at its center, is the urban-industrial economic heartland of South Africa.  Its final tally was ANC: 53.69%; DA: 30.70%; EFF: 10.27%.   In fact, the DA was actually leading the ANC in Johannesburg as of May 8 and they were neck-and-neck until finally settling at 52.39% ANC; 32.30% DA; 10.03% EFF.  In Tshwane (Pretoria), the ANC lost its majority, coming in at 49.43%; DA: 33.61%; EFF: 11.54%. The DA took Midvaal (Meyerton) handily defeating the ANC 52% to 39%.   Other municipalities taken by the DA included Humansdorp (Kouga), George, Knysna, Oudtshoorn, and Mossel Bay, along with Cape Town, of course, and many of its suburban entities.  Even into the Eastern Cape and the Karoo, the DA showed great strength, losing by only 35,000 votes in Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth), at 40% to the ANC's 48%, and similar margins in Graaf Reneit, Beaufort West, Prins Albert and others.

Factors for future elections

But the DA cannot be complacent. Apart from their need to break the ceiling of black political support, if they play a negative role aimed at simply blocking and/or disrupting the ANC as in opposition for the sake of it, their days could be numbered. There is a tug-of-war in the DA between a youthful "black caucus" and the Anglo-Afrikaner white old guard born of the liberal Democratic Party.  The DA will have to come forth with real proposals that cut both ways between the ANC and the EFF, and begin to address corporate South Africa's tenuous relationship with both labor and government.  As for EFF, it emerged as the official opposition in Northwest and Limpopo provinces, where the ANC faced another concern of low voter turnout in their strongholds.  This may be symbolic for now, but could represent a growing trend for the future.

Adding to this trend are several other concerns.  While 17 million South Africans voted, another 8 million registered voters did not. Among them are the so-called "born frees," the young generation born after 1994 and are able to vote in presidential elections for the first time since the end of apartheid. Their absence from the polls is bad news for both ANC and DA, as it shows they are not driven by old apartheid mindsets and divisions, and were obviously not captured by either side.  Appealing to them in future elections will be a challenge for all parties.  Additionally, the most noticed new party on the scene, Mamphela Ramphele's Agang SA, did not fare well and garnered only 2 seats in parliament. The old breakaway Congress of the People (COPE), also had less than 1% of the national vote.  However, we know that "back room" discussions were underway throughout the campaign for coalition or cooperation, and personality clashes prevented any possible coalition that might have garnered more votes.  Should anything begin to gel there, and the EFF/Cosatu/Workers Party to the left form a coalition, then the ANC may have a real fight on its hands.

The municipal elections of 2016 should give us a hint as to whether this is or is not occurring.  But for now, the only way to understand the political balance of forces in South Africa is from "the bottom-up."

Co-authors Steve McDonald is a Public Policy Scholar at The Wilson Center in Washington, DC and Francis Kornegay is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Global Dialogue in South Africa.

About the Author

Francis A. Kornegay, Jr.

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more