The 2021 Local Government Elections (LGE) in South Africa marked a historical milestone. For the first time since multi-racial democracy was introduced in 1994, the African National Congress (ANC), which has ruled the country uninterrupted since the end of Apartheid, received less than 50 percent of the total vote. Its main competitor, the Democratic Alliance (DA), also lost considerably.
Siegfried Schröder is the director of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Southern Africa Office in Johannesburg.
Rebone Tau works as a programme manager at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Southern Africa Office in Johannesburg.
In 30 percent of all municipalities coalition governments need to formed, including in five of the biggest cities—a huge challenge for the parties and their leaders. At the same time, the majority of the electorate will have to be convinced to re-engage with the democratic process, as only a small portion of eligible voters found their way to the polls.
Collapsing Returns and Tumbling Turnout
The two main parties in South Africa, the ANC and the DA, faced dismal returns in this year’s local government elections. Compared to the 2016 local elections, the ANC received 46.03 percent, a decline of close to 8 percent, and the DA received 21.84 percent, a decline of 5 percent. This suggests that both of these parties are losing support and that the 2024 national elections will not be easy for either of them. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) won 10.41 percent, improving by 2 percent over their 2016 result, while the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) got 5.71 percent, an increase of 1.5 percent. The IFP also won some district and local municipalities from the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal province, which is the home province of former president Jacob Zuma.
The biggest story, however, is perhaps the low number of people who bothered to cast a ballot at all. South Africa has a population of 60.1 million. Of those, 35.87 million are eligible to vote—but only 26.23 million registered, meaning quite a large number did not intend to take part whatsoever. Even more telling, only 46 percent of registered voters went to the polls—the lowest turnout in 20 years.
2011 LGE results
2016 LGE results
2021 LGE results
A Backdrop of Economic Stagnation and Rising Violence
The elections were highly contested, with more than 320 political parties and 1,500 independent candidates participating in the race—an enormous increase compared to 2016. Many new contestants were motivated to participate by the lousy performance of the current local councils, especially with regard to public services like education, health, housing, youth job creation, infrastructure, and electricity.
South Africa has witnessed a surge of so-called “service delivery marches” of angry citizens in different parts of the country. The demand for stable and comprehensive provision of electricity tops the list: promises of access to electricity have not been kept by councils for many years, while in the meantime power outages are an everyday occurrence. Corruption and mismanagement are the main drivers of this disaster.
The continuous loss of trust in political institutions and office holders has been accompanied by an increase in violence. In July, following, the arrest of former president Jacob Zuma, riots broke out mainly in KwaZulu-Natal province and in some parts of Gauteng province where the Zulu-speaking population dominates. Looting during that period cost the country’s economy 25 billion South African Rand and led to over 300 deaths. Even if politically instigated, the looting and violence were also signs of discontent felt by many citizens, and signalled their preparedness to break the law if necessary. Besides the economic damage, the death toll—partly a result of South Africa’s widespread culture of violence—is quite alarming.
The election campaign and the months before were also overshadowed by political assassinations. Although they mainly took place in KwaZulu-Natal province, they increasingly could be observed in other provinces as well. Such political killings are a recurrent feature of every election in South Africa, this time mainly affecting ANC, IFP, and EFF candidates and their supporters. Most of the killings happened during pre-election nominations of ward candidates. The competition for these “lucrative” positions (due to the access to power and resources they facilitate) is sometimes fought quite literally with any means necessary. Investigations into and prosecution of such crimes were not seriously conducted in most cases. Apart from this sort of violence, racism and xenophobia were also employed by certain parties, contributing to the further destruction of the social and cultural fabric in the country.
South Africa’s Local Governing Structure
All South African citizens 18 years old and above can vote for their councils every five years. They decide directly about their local, district, or metropolitan government structures. These councils in turn appoint mayors and other executive positions. The country is divided into 207 local municipalities, which are represented in 44 district councils. Apart from this two-tier system, the eights biggest municipalities are organized as metropolitan municipalities (“metros”). The eight metros are Johannesburg, Tshwane (Pretoria), Ekurhuleni (East Rand), eThekwini (Durban), Cape Town, Buffalo City (East London), Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth) and Mangaung (Bloemfontain). They represent more than 40 percent of the national population and more than 55 percent of GDP. Therefore, political observers have always focused on those metros, as they are politically more important and dynamic than rural areas.
Local councils are composed equally of ward councilors (elected by direct vote) and proportional representation (party list) votes. Districts councils are composed of a proportional vote (40 percent) and representatives by those local councils in the jurisdiction of the district (60 percent).
Councils appoint mayors, deputy mayors, speakers, and other executive personnel at the political level. Theoretically, civil administration—usually led by a city manager and a number of senior managers—should be politically neutral. In reality, of course, a lot of interference can be observed concerning those appointments. It has been even more disrupting when a coalition was governing municipalities or metros.
Currently, four political parties dominate South African politics in the metros and major towns, and despite the shifting returns and low turnout, this election was no different. But how exactly did they conduct themselves?
African National Congress
The ANC’s leaders, especially President Cyril Ramaphosa and Deputy President David Mabuza, spent most of the campaign in Gauteng, South Africa’s most important province in political and economic terms that includes 8 percent of the population and three of the country’s eight metropolitan municipalities. Voter apathy in previous elections had alarmed the ANC, pushing it to campaign in dense and contested areas. It appears the party believed that the rural vote was more secure, and thus gave it comparatively little attention.
The ANC’s selection of councillors was quite different than in previous years. All candidates were screened in public meetings at the community level—a pre-emptive response to the party’s dwindling support. In the past, the community was never involved.
Another noteworthy change is that the ANC went to these elections without announcing their candidates for mayor in the different municipalities. Due to a number of negative experiences, mainly in connection with corruption, procedures were set up for serious screening, interviewing, and selection processes for mayoral candidates. These measures were meant to win back trust among the electorate, disappointed by seemingly never-ending stories of corruption, nepotism, and maladministration.
The DA came in second in the last LGE as well as in the 2019 national elections. The party faced a difficult election campaign, marred by accusations of racism. Over the past few years, a number of senior black members within the DA have been pushed out of the party, and the DA was criticized for putting up racially tinged posters in Phoenix, an area populated predominantly by the Indian community and where 36 black people were killed during the July riots. The DA’s posters proclaimed that community members in Phoenix were heroes, not racists, and implied that the ANC had vilified them as such. The posters caused serious tensions, and raised fears that open racism might be ignited or accelerated by such a campaign tool. The DA was ultimately forced to pull down the posters.
The DA were desperate for votes in these elections, as they have lost part of the middle class vote and the black vote. They have also lost some of the white vote to the Freedom Front Plus, an Afrikaner party, because some white people feel that the DA does not protect their interests. The party seems to lack a clear orientation with regard to its voter base. In certain business quarters they are not trusted anymore, as they worked side-by-side with the radical EFF just to get into power.
Economic Freedom Fighters
The EFF has been growing in every election since its formation in 2014, although they did not win a single ward in 2016, but got good results in the proportional representation vote. This made them kingmakers during negotiations for coalitions in the key municipalities in 2016. The EFF gave the DA their vote to form a government in three municipalities. They did not form coalitions but supported DA minority governments in Tshwane, Johannesburg, and Nelson Mandela Bay. All three did not last long.
The EFF cannot be evaluated in terms of good or bad governance as the party have never been in government in any municipality in the country. Given the party’s falling out with the DA, it was known going into these elections that the EFF would not give their votes to the DA should there be hung results. It remains to seen whether they could work with the ANC in the future, the party from which they split off.
Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP)
The IFP is a Zulu-dominated political party that has participated in governments in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces since the dawn of South Africa’s democracy. Yet this time around, the IFP contested local elections in Limpopo province, home province of President Ramaphosa, for the first time.
While on the campaign trail, party leaders also met with some of the royal houses. This is common in South Africa during elections, as most of the royal houses are influential in the rural areas. Formally, however, those structures are not to be used openly for party politics. Yet Zulu King Misuzulu’s photo was used by the IFP during the campaign, leading to the Zulu royal family issuing a statement distancing themselves from the IFP and prompting a public apology from the party.
Coalitions Are Unpopular, but Unavoidable
Coalition governments at various levels are not new in South Africa, even the first national government of democratic South Africa was a coalition including the National Party. Yet these coalitions have a fairly negative track record. Looking back on the 2016 LGE results and the coalitions (or minority local governments) which formed in four out of eight metropolitan municipalities, quite a lot of instability was the result.
Hung municipalities emerged after the 2016 elections in Johannesburg, Tshwane, Ekurhuleni, and Nelson Mandela Bay. Initially, the DA and the EFF voted together in Tshwane, Johannesburg, and Nelson Mandela Bay, thus enabling the DA to form a minority government in these municipalities—despite the fact that, ideologically, it made no sense for these two parties to vote together. The DA, a “free market” champion, hardly had anything in common with the socialist EFF, which seeks to nationalize land without compensation.
In Ekurhuleni, the ANC voted with the African Independent Congress (AIC) to form a government. The Ekurhuleni municipality was the only stable coalition government from 2016 up to 2021. All the other aforementioned municipalities were not stable at all. Some have had five or more mayors in the last five years. The relationship between DA and EFF fell apart almost as quickly as it formed.
According to political analysts, this was largely the result of a lack of experience with forming a stable coalition government at the local level. In most cases, no formal coalition agreement was negotiated, nor was anything communicated to the public. Ultimately, in many cases the only visible outcome was the result of “horse trading”: political and administrative positions and access to public money, mainly in terms of “stolen” tenders at the municipal level. These developments resulted in a very negative attitude towards coalitions at the metropolitan level.
Given the current results, it is clear that coalitions will have to be formed once again. Up to 30 percent of all municipalities, including six out of eight metropolitan municipalities, have no outright majority. Although the ANC lost across the board, the rural vote is still in its favour. The largely rural provinces of Limpopo, Mpumalanga, North West, Northern Cape, and Eastern Cape have still an overall ANC vote of over 50 percent. This is reflected in many of the rural local municipality councils.
The picture is obviously different in the big cities: the DA managed to hold Cape Town with 59 percent, while the ANC defended its outright majority in Buffalo City, also with 59 percent of the vote. In Mangaung, the ANC could just maintain its majority with 50.63 percent of the vote. But all other metropolitan municipalities are now hung municipalities where coalitions are needed—despite the fact that, before the elections, certain parties expressed an unwillingness to engage in such coalitions.
Given the aforementioned experiences and perceptions of previous coalitions, a huge step forward will be needed from all political players to respond to current challenges, reduce voters’ apathy, and find solutions to the needs of the electorate. In terms of coalitions, a first step could be a common understanding between the parties involved to base their future cooperation on a formal agreement in terms of substance and policies to be implemented, of procedures, structures, and responsibilities. And just as importantly: such an agreement must be made accessible to the public.
Resignation or Revival?
Politically, the dominant issue during the elections was improving public services, with all parties and candidates promising to do so. The ANC’s losses across the board as well as the meagre result for the DA are clear signs that the parties at the helm of local government during the last five years were punished for their poor performance. The ANC in particular might have fared even worse had it not been led by President Cyril Ramaphosa, who managed to contain internal squabbling to a certain extent, and even convinced ex-president Thabo Mbeki and other senior ANC figures to support the campaign. That said, a promising start in the run-up to the 2024 national elections and 2022 ANC national conference this LGE was not.
Beyond party politics and individual results, the low voter turnout is quite alarming. On the one hand, all councils—regardless of whom they appoint as mayor—will enjoy very weak legitimacy, given that the vast majority of their respective electorate decided not to take part in the democratic process. On the other hand, the needs of the population are obvious: the needs of unemployed youth, of women facing the threat of gender-based violence, of small business owners who rely on electricity and other public services, or poor people who need housing and health care—to name just a few.
The interesting question now is whether the South Africans who lack trust (or hope) in established institutions and procedures will follow a purely selfish, individualistic path—giving in to racism, xenophobia, or other “identity” politics—or whether they will form community organizations, social movements, and neighbourhood committees to re-structure local politics and change their communities for the better. Fortunately, single-issue movements have already formed in some areas. They have to be supported, whether as political alternatives or as watchdogs to keep those in power in check.