Politics is Always Local – A Look at the South Africa 2016 Municipal Elections

  • Kathleen Schmermund

The old saying goes “Politics is local” and in South Africa, it is no different. Wednesday, South Africans took to the polls to participate in highly anticipated municipal elections.

There was a lot of buzz around these elections, with the opposition confident it would make strides in major cities around the country.

As of Friday, with 95 percent of the votes in, while the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party has maintained a majority of the vote across the country, the opposition party – the Democratic Alliance (DA) – appears to have garnered significant support in South Africa’s top cities, including winning in Nelson Mandela Bay and being neck-and-neck with the ANC in the capital city, Pretoria, as well as Johannesburg. DA also won in Cape Town, where the party traditionally has had support, and maintained control in the Western Cape region overall. Nationwide, the ANC’s support seems to have slipped from nearly 62 percent in 2011 to 54 percent, marking the first time the party has ever had less than 60 percent of the vote in its history. 

But these are local elections, so what’s the big deal?  Well the big deal is that these gains by the opposition demonstrate a major shift in the political landscape of South Africa. To put these elections in perspective, the ANC, the party of Nelson Mandela, has completely dominated South African politics since it served as a driving force to end apartheid in the 1990s. However, in recent years, the ruling party has faced growing discontent high unemployment rates, accusations of corruption and other challenges. The opposition, led by the DA, has been slowly taking advantage of these frustrations to draw traditionally ANC supporters to their side. And signs of this political shift was evident as the results of Wednesday’s poll trickled in.

While the ANC still technically came out on top nation-wide, these elections are a huge blow to the party. Losing in a city that is named after the party’s beloved founder has to sting a bit for ANC leaders.  Furthermore, with no clear outright majority winner emerging in Pretoria and Johannesburg, the ANC may have to form coalition governments in the capital and the country’s major economic hub, which in one analyst’s view “would be an embarrassment” to the party.

The ANC will be wise to stop, reflect and regroup after these elections and set their sights on 2019 when the presidency will be back up for grabs. Should the trends demonstrated in these local elections continue, ANC will have to work hard to prevent a similar shift in power at the national level from occurring in 2019. For the DA’s part, now that they have consolidated in several urban centers, if the opposition hopes to make continued gains, it will have to figure out how to appeal to the more rural communities. In this increasingly tense environment, it is my hope that the political landscape will remain open and competitive between now and then. There were some troubling signs of intimidation and even violence leading up to this week’s elections, with 12 candidates and activists killed.  Over the next several years, the international community should show its support for a free, fair and open election process in South Africa that is free from violence.

Since South Africa’s first democratic elections after the end of apartheid in 1994, IRI has been working with local partners to support South Africa’s democratic transition. Read IRI’s pre-election snapshot HERE. Read Atlantic Council’s primer with more background on the parties HERE. You can follow the results as they continue to come in on the South Africa Independent Electoral Commission’s tech-savvy website HERE.

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