Poor electorate now much wiser
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The litany of challenges facing the African National Congress, as the country builds up to the local government elections in November, by most indications suggests that the liberation movement is firmly on a downward spiral and stands to concede more ground in the key metropolitan cities that propel the South African economy.
The last elections in 2016 marked a watershed moment for the ANC as opposition coalitions unseated it from Johannesburg and Tshwane, two important cities for their symbolism as the economic hub and seat of government respectively.
The laws of the country were already being made in Cape Town, the bastion of the fierce rival that is the Democratic Alliance. The ANC had also barely hung on to power in Ekurhuleni where it had to share power with other smaller parties, including the African Independent Congress (AIC).
This is the party that had also made it possible for the ANC to retain power in the Rustenburg Local Municipality on the basis of a promise by the ANC to have the town of Matatiele, which is the base of the AIC, incorporated into KwaZulu-Natal from the Eastern Cape.
Once the ruling party was ensconced in the seat of power, it duly disregarded reminders and protestations by the smaller partner that it felt duped by the ANC which did not play its part of the bargain.
It is unlikely that the AIC would want to reward the ANC for the betrayal, should a new partnership be required to retain power after November 1.
Coalitions are not a uniquely ANC headache.
If there is one lesson that has been learnt by all parties both in Johannesburg and Tshwane, as well as elsewhere in the country, it is that stability in governance is difficult to achieve as was evident when different party mayors had to be installed as political moods and allegiances swayed mid-term.
But the AIC’s sense of betrayal by the ANC pales into insignificance against that felt by the majority of South Africans that could just not imagine themselves voting against the party that brought them liberation.
The stark evidence laid bare in reports by the Auditor-General paints a grim picture of a collapsed system of local government. For the year ended in June, only 27 of the 257 municipalities in South Africa got clean audits.
The message is unequivocal: due to corruption, incompetence, political meddling and an entrenched culture of impunity, under the leadership of the ANC, the wheels have come off spectacularly.
As factional fights play out in the ANC regarding inclusion or exclusion in the lists for the coming elections, it has dawned on ordinary voters that this game is essentially about a looting frenzy by a connected few who do not really care about service delivery and a better life promised by Nelson Mandela.
The killing and maiming in KwaZulu-Natal, of even women, at community meetings to nominate ANC councillors points to a state of affairs where some will stop at nothing to keep their comrades in power.
The ANC might distance itself from such conduct, to the extent of disowning as its genuine members those involved in such acts, but the organisation goes into these elections as a brand tainted by criminality and all that has emerged from the Zondo Commission of Inquiry Into State Capture.
Early indications from the IEC are that by the time voter registration closes and final candidate lists are submitted, a record number of independent candidates, about 1 000, will take part, up from 855 in 2016.
In most instances, these would be members of community and social movements that traditionally would have been aligned to the broader Mass Democratic Movement led by the ANC. The increase in their numbers suggests that alternative options to ANC-sponsored candidates are being explored – yet another indicator of declining fortunes for the ANC.
General voter apathy towards local government elections will not be a new phenomenon. The turnout for the previous polls in 2006 (48.40%); 2011 (57.64%) and 2016 (57.94%) would suggest that South Africans are not particularly enthusiastic about their critical responsibility to have a say about who runs the affairs of their locality.
National elections are taken slightly more seriously, as evidenced by 2009 (77.30%); 2014 (73.48%) and 2019 (66.05%).
In 2021, Covid-19 introduces a new dimension.
Uncertainty about the election date has deprived political parties of valuable time to launch full-blown campaigns and organise rallies attended by thousands in massive venues across the country. Door-to-door campaigns are also not very attractive propositions as people generally try to limit contact to protect themselves against the pandemic.
But as is well known, the ANC is broke and has not paid staff salaries in three months. Generous benefactors, who have always carried the ANC during these times in the past, are no longer coming forth in great numbers with donations, in cash or kind.
Elections are an extremely costly exercise, therefore it is not clear how it will raise even a fraction of the resources that were its disposal at the height of the politics of patronage.
Of course, government departments will be invigorated to launch housing projects, open new roads and bridges while identifying destitute families in need of urgent social welfare.
However, these days poor communities are much wiser. They receive the food parcels and other largesse, then proceed to vote their own way.
While the older generation wallows in disappointment about the failures of the ANC to run the municipalities properly, the younger cohort (18-29 years old) has no particular sentimental affinity to the liberation movement. It only sees the pot holes, uncollected refuse and untrimmed hedges for what they truly represent: the incapacity of their councillors to perform.
They are open to persuasion to vote “correctly” not only in these elections, but in many more to come in order to choose men and women who will make a difference to the picture painted in the Auditor-General’s reports about the state of our local governance.
And there are some four million of this age group out of the 25 million registered voters.
That is, if they even bother to vote on November 1.
* Madlala is an independent political analyst and former editor of the Independent on Saturday.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.