South Africa’s 2021 local government elections will go down in history as the moment that Africa’s oldest liberation movement saw its share of the vote slip below 50 percent for the first time since the end of apartheid. The African National Congress’s (ANC) share of the vote fell from 53.91 percent in 2016 to 46 percent. This collapse was accompanied by the lowest turnout in South African electoral history. Voters opted to register their preferences with their feet rather than ballot: Only about 45.93 percent (12,035,293 voters) bothered to vote this time around, compared to 58.07 percent (15,290,820 voters) in 2016.
South African voters are gatvol (pissed off) with the ruling party and are largely dissatisfied with the political options available. This a country where almost half the country’s population is unemployed (for the youth, the figure is over 70 percent) and per capita incomes have fallen steadily for the better part of a decade. South African voters largely chose to stay home amid a pandemic, austerity, the COVID-19-ravaged economy, record unemployment, and the collapse of basic services and public security. Local governance is the most visible marker of South Africa’s crisis: Trash lies uncollected on the pothole-ridden streets, open sewage flows in public, water and electricity shortages are common. The country, in other words, is in deep shit.
The End of ANC Hegemony?
The collapse of the ANC’s vote was predictable given that the party tried its best to postpone the elections until next year. Despite its history, the party of Nelson Mandela, Albert Luthuli, and Walter Sisulu is now a mélange of competing factions, warring mafias, and regional conspiracies unified only by a desire to cling to power, to hold on to the criminal rackets and patronage networks that keep its heart pumping. The divisions between president Cyril Ramaphosa’s faction and rival ex-president Jacob Zuma’s Radical Economic Transformation are so deep that the party could not even name mayoral candidates before the election, due to factional strife and the potential of several of these names being taken out in political hits that are a regular part of campaign season.
July’s rioting and looting saw the worst acts of violence and destruction since the end of apartheid, leaving 374 dead, billions of dollars of damage, and infrastructure crippled across two provinces. This violence was unleashed by the ANC against South Africa as part of a factional struggle over the imprisonment of Jacob Zuma for contempt of court. (Zuma is now out on medical parole, thanks to the help of his former spymaster, who was serving as minister of Justice and Correctional Services).
Instead of keeping their promise to hold those responsible accountable, Ramaphosa opted to make a deal with Zuma and his faction in the run-up to the elections. They have been aided by a distracted media that has pretended the events of July simply never happened, but voters remembered and punished them at the polls in the areas worst hit by the violence. The ANC’s total share of the vote in the country’s two most populous provinces, Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal (the latter being South Africa’s political violence capital), fell to 36.09 percent and 41.4 percent, respectively, compared to 45.84 percent and 53.91 percent in 2016. The ANC’s vote in Durban — the city most devastated by insurrection — dropped to 42 percent.
The ANC has never done a good job in opposition. And the loss of so many of the positions needed to fuel the party’s legion of patronage machines could have severe effects for the country, including increased political violence or even extortionist attempts to render cities “ungovernable.”
The New and Old Opposition
Despite the depressing magnitude of the disaster that the ANC presided over, it is telling that South Africa’s two major opposition parties, the center-right Democratic Alliance (DA) and the populist racial-nationalist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), also did not perform particularly well. The DA’s numbers declined from 26.9 percent in 2016 to around 21.76 percent this year. The EFF only marginally increased its share of the vote to around 10 percent, even after declaring that it would win a two-thirds majority the week before the election.
The major political beneficiaries of the ANC’s decline and the DA’s lesser decline have been the legion of small ethnonationalist and right-populist parties that infest South Africa’s ballot papers, from the Afrikaner nationalist VF+ (Vryheidsfront Plus, Freedom Front Plus) to the Zulu national IFP (Inkatha Freedom Party) and this year’s rookie performer, ex-mayor of Johannesburg Herman Mashaba’s right-populist ActionSA.
The VF+, along with the Cape Coloured Congress, won votes from the DA in the Western Cape and Gauteng; the IFP won significant numbers of ANC voters in KwaZulu Natal. ActionSA, with 16 percent, captured large numbers of both suburban and working-class voters in Johannesburg, the country’s largest city, along with ninety seats across the country.
The other relative newcomer to pick up significant numbers of votes is the Patriotic Alliance (PA), a party that combines Coloured nationalism and extreme xenophobia with the leadership of former gang boss–turned–shady businessman and motivational speaker Gayton McKenzie, author of A Hustler’s Bible. The PA picked up fifty-eight seats across the country. Even the deranged ex-head of South Africa’s national broadcaster Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s African Continent Movement picked up two seats, though his resume includes having critical journalists kidnapped and given mock executions.
The first major outcome of the elections will be the need to form coalition governments, as the ANC’s share of the vote in all of South Africa’s major cities fell below 50 percent, with the exception of East London (Buffalo City metro) and Cape Town (governed by the DA). This trend was already on display in 2016: Coalition governments were cobbled together in Tshwane (Pretoria), Nelson Mandela Bay, and Johannesburg, even if none of these coalitions survived for long. This will be messy: Several of these parties will demand a share over the rackets needed to sustain patronage networks, others might demand anti-immigrant policies or symbolic ethnonationalist pork to sate their base’s demands.
If the last few years are anything to go by, coalition governments are extremely unstable and prone to conspiracy and crisis in South Africa. This means despite the large-scale rejection of the ANC, there is no guarantee basic services will improve or there will be some sort of magical increase in accountability.
A Right-Populist Wave?
The depth of the crisis in South Africa is hard to overstate. The effects of the pandemic were devastating: The economic damage was only comparable to civil wars, according to one report, and over 250,000 died. If that wasn’t bad enough, much of the money set aside for COVID-related spending was embezzled by the ANC, even as it imposed a brutal militarized lockdown with miserly or nonexistent social provision.
Systemic corruption and endless scandal, as I have written previously, do not translate into a type of massive outrage that fuels politics, but it can also translate into a cycle of diminishing expectations where people expect less and less from politics and politicians, and either withdraw entirely from the political process or seek alternatives in the far right.
This is one of the reasons that I predicted in 2019 that South Africa was ripe for a right-populist wave driven by xenophobia, fears of crime, evangelical churches, and traditional leaders. We can already see one example of this in Mashaba, a businessman turned politician, who mixes his brand of “I don’t do politics, I deliver” with anti-corruption and xenophobia.
While it is too soon to judge this a conservative turn — in part because South Africans were already fairly conservative — one surefire way to ensure this becomes a right-wing tsunami is to not provide voters with any good options come election time. The rightward trend among the South African electorate was already evident in the 2019 national elections: Frustrated with both the official opposition and the ruling party, fearful of their future, and angry, voters drifted either back to their ethnic laagers or have embraced the anti-immigrant populism of Mashaba.
Perhaps the most damning thing about these elections is that most South Africans had no real progressive, let alone left-wing, option to vote for. The alternatives being offered were mostly reactionary. The Left is not even offering an alternative to the Right, let alone pushing against racial polarization and anti-immigrant bigotry.
Hope for a New Left?
The exception to this were the number of new small parties emerging out of civic and social movements that ran local campaigns, such as the Makana Citizens Front that won 18 percent of the vote in the ANC stronghold of Makana Municipality, pushing the ruling party’s share of the vote down to barely over 50 percent.
In political scientist Ryan Brunette’s words:
We are seeing the emergence of a new civic movement. I don’t mean anything normative by this. Its ideological valence, its orientation to the state, good government and patronage, its relationships with the ANC and other parties and institutions — these are certainly quite diverse. We can discern by their names that the movement draws on a memory of the old, anti-apartheid civic movement, but this was itself a variegated tendency which had a very different overarching concern. We know, moreover, that the present surge is happening against the background of a disintegrating ANC.
For some reason, the South African left has neglected elections up to this point, either viewing the working class as still under the spell of the ANC or preaching a type of purist movementism that views electoral politics as intrinsically tainted and corrupting. When it has embraced electoral politics, it has been either a sectarian or a half-hearted effort, like when the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party ran in the 2019 national elections on the principle that elections could not change anything and only released their manifesto forty-eight hours before election day. (The party opted to do nothing this time around.)
Building a genuine political alternative in South Africa will take years. It will require the Left to engage with what South Africans actually think and with the challenges they are facing, taking up public security and the collapse of state capacity, combating the terrible effects of heroin and meth in South African communities, and building a program that moves from protest to power. The Left cannot hope that the ANC will naturally self-correct — this is delusional.
Life for most South Africans is becoming nastier and more brutish; the state can no longer provide basic services even for capital and the middle class. As demonstrated in July, it cannot even provide a measure of public security. South Africans are hostage to the violent spasms of a cancerous ruling party. The prospects ahead are bleak, but the fact is that the ANC’s hegemony may be over. That alone provides some possibility for the Left, even if the alternatives to ANC hegemony might be even worse.
The Left, as weak as it may currently be, cannot afford not to give South Africans an option in the next elections. The stakes are too high to eschew its duty to occupy the space outside of the ANC to the Right. Voters must be presented with an option beyond ethnonationalism, xenophobia, and populist nativism. South Africans need dignity, basic services, and a state that works for them. If the Left does not take on this task, the future will look something like what we saw in July: ghastly.