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Lipstick on a pig or just whistling past the cemetery?

What do we make of South Africa’s 2021 Municipal Elections?  The short answer is either South Africans are masochists or so turned off by 27 years of failure that they can’t be bothered to go to the polling station.  What we can be certain of is that political pundits, party leaders and the captured media can and will spin the narrative.  The African National Congress (ANC) is busy, comically, claiming this was the best campaign it ever ran.  Meanwhile Cyril Ramaphosa warned South Africans that “only the ANC” can give you electricity.  Perhaps he should have said only the ANC can deny you power, given that within hours of the polls closing the state-owned colossal failure known as Eskom resumed loadshedding.  Millions of paying South Africans once again found themselves in the dark.  Thank you ANC for fulfilling your promise (or was that a campaign threat?).  The “party of liberation” also proved true to that claim, freeing nearly 40 municipalities and metros from ANC majority rule.

The “opposition” Democratic Alliance (DA) lost control of half the municipalities it controlled.  This dismal result is most pronounced in the Western Cape where it will now be left in the uncomfortable position of kowtowing to Patricia de Lille’s GOOD Party and the upstart Patriotic Alliance, both of which ate into the, until now, solid and loyal Coloured voting base the party has long enjoyed.  But never fear, party leadership is here.  The DA is crowing at how the ANC has been “brought to below 50% nationwide.”  Never mind the fact that this is a meaningless statistic in municipal elections.  It is not about who polls the most votes around the nation.  The key to success is winning council seats and taking control of cities.  On those metrics, the DA has fallen backwards.  Even if we accept the ANC below 50% line, the DA itself fell precipitously.  The ANC may have lost 32% of the votes it garnered in 2016, but John Steenhuisen’s party performed even worse, losing 37%!  The ANC dropped from 8 million raw votes in 2016 to just 5.3 million in 2021, the DA from 4 million to 2.5 million.  Neither party has ANYTHING to crow about.

Julius Malema’s rabble-rousing Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) seem disappointed with their lack of progress.  But in a year when the two largest parties shed voters like corona viral particles and only 31% of eligible voters showed up, the EFF need not be disappointed.  They may remain below the 15% peak I have long stated is the extent of their appeal, but the ANC’s epic failure here means Malema’s militant wing of the ANC added 219 seats (29%) to their total, reaching nearly a thousand council seats.  Not a bad performance given the party earned 24,000 fewer votes!

The Inkhata Freedom Party (IFP), long written off as dead by the media and analysts, has re-emerged as a force to be reckoned with in Kwa-Zulu Natal (KZN) where has wrested control of the province from the ANC, which dropped to just 41% of the vote total.  The IFP added 112 council seats to raise its total to 544.  The performance is impressive, but it no doubt owes much to the government’s loss of control during the July 2021 internal ANC insurrection in the province.  The IFP is now a force to be reckoned with at municipal level in KZN.  But the success is less the result of winning over voters than it is in ANC voters staying at home.  Inkhata gained only seven thousand more votes than in 2016 (1%).  The internal struggle within the ANC is why the party is in trouble in KZN and the IFP suddenly looks strong.

If anyone has reason to pop champagne corks it is the Freedom Front Plus (FF+) which not only saw astronomical vote gains but did even better adding council seats.  The FF+, all too often, falsely portrayed in mainstream media, saw its vote total increase 138% from 115 thousand to 276 thousand.  More than doubling your vote count may be impressive, but that pales in comparison to the leap from just 67 council seats to at least 220.  The immediate response is that the party siphoned off “White” voters from the DA.  But this claim is not (yet) supported by data.  More likely, the FF+ became more appealing to a broader coalition of voters, especially among Coloureds.  Regardless how the FF+ won over voters, it is the only significant political party where leadership is not shaking its head over 2021 failures.

This brings us to ActionSA (ASA) and the Patriotic Alliance (PA), two minor parties that did not compete in 2016.  Herman Mashaba’s ASA will be a kingmaker (along with the FF+) in Tshwane and possibly in Johannesburg.  The PA will play a similar role in a few Western Cape councils.  Mashaba has his eyes on 2024.  But it is difficult to see how he turns 16% in Jo-Burg into a winning result at national level.

What have we learned?  The leading parties are arrogant, disconnected and need to sack their media teams.  The ANC lied about everything in its campaign.  The result was the ANC got only 13% of eligible voters!  The DA learned all the wrong lessons from 2019, kept its candidates hidden and relied on the appeal of Steenhuisen to carry the day.  He did not.  The EFF attempted to hoodwink voters with false promises in a manifesto that included competencies over which municipalities have no control.  Few voters fell for it.  While successful, Inkhata is still a Zulu based party with limited national appeal.  The FF+ did well but has a long was to go on the national stage.

Ultimately, few of these parties have learned anything.  Politics is a blood sport; one whose season is 365 days a year.  Rather than wait to post banners two months before an election and make empty promises, race bait or hoodwink voters, South Africa’s political parties need to learn to EARN votes every day by engaging EVERYWHERE.  Be transparent, honest, and realistic.  This campaign should have been underway in June 2020 when the South African government eased the unconstitutional lockdown restrictions, not on September 1st, 2021.  So, who won?  Not South Africans, that is for certain.  Sixty-six hung councils will result in paralyzed governance, ego trips, dirty deals and neglected cities and towns.

Chris Wyatt

Chris Wyatt

Colonel (Ret) Chris Wyatt, the Principal & CEO of the Indaba Africa Group, is a retired U.S. Army Military Intelligence Officer and Foreign Area Officer for Sub-Saharan Africa and past Director of African Studies at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He was previously the Senior Military Advisor to the U.S. Mission to the African Union (USAU). He has lived across the continent (eight countries) and working in over 30 African countries.

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