IF HUBRIS COULD fuel a power station, then the African National Congress (ANC) would never have to worry about blackouts. Ahead of local elections today South Africa’s ruling party is again presiding over rolling power cuts, a result of ineptitude and corruption at Eskom, the public electricity provider. There has already been more “load-shedding”—the euphemism for when Eskom selectively cuts power to neighbourhoods or towns when it does not generate enough for the whole country—in 2021 than in any other year. The power cuts are strangling sub-Saharan Africa’s most industrialised economy and casting a shadow over a country once seen as a beacon of hope for the continent.
One might therefore expect a glimmer of humility from the leaders of the ANC, which has ruled South Africa without a break for more than 27 years since the end of white rule. But on October 28th Cyril Ramaphosa told residents of a township east of Johannesburg that “If you don’t vote for the ANC, then electricity may never be restored.” The president then asked: “Which other party do you trust to ensure that electricity is restored here?”
These elections may help answer Mr Ramaphosa’s question. As well as controlling the national government, the ANC is in charge of most of the 278 cities, districts and towns that make up local government. All of these are up for grabs. And voters may have noticed that South Africa is an awful state. Real GDP per head has fallen since 2015. Unemployment is at a record high. Many towns lack regular running water, working sewage plants and rubbish collection. Although Mr Ramaphosa has sporadically gone after those involved in corruption under his predecessor, Jacob Zuma, his party still treats state finances as a slush fund. Barely a week passes without an ANC apparatchik being assasinated, since public positions are lucrative enough to kill for. In July, when Mr Zuma was briefly imprisoned for defying a court order related to a cesspit-full of corruption charges, the former president’s supporters instigated riots in which more than 300 people died. It was the worst mass violence since apartheid. There are, in other words, plenty of reasons for voters to distrust the ANC.
And there are signs that an increasing number do. Since the dawn of democracy in 1994 the ANC has won more than half of the vote at every nationwide election. But enduring primacy masks decline. After peaking at almost 69.7% at the general election in 2004, its support has dipped, reaching 57.5% at the most recent general ballot in 2019. In local elections it typically does worse, as its voters are more likely to stay at home. In 2016, as the full extent of graft under Mr Zuma became clear, a relatively high turnout for the opposition cut the ANC’s share to 53.9%.
This time things could get worse for the ANC. In September Ipsos, a research firm, estimated that the ruling party would win 49.3% in the upcoming ballot. In October polling by Victory Research, another firm, found that 46.4% of voters view the ANC somewhat or very favourably. For the party of Nelson Mandela that is a historical nadir. “The ANC’s brand is fundamentally damaged,” argues Gareth van Onselen, chief executive of Victory Research (and a former spokesman for the Democratic Alliance, the official opposition).
If the ANC does stay above 50%, then it will be helped by three factors. The first is that, for reasons that baffle suburban quaffers of chenin blanc, it is still seen by many black South Africans as the best party for improving the lives of ordinary folk. A record of creating public-sector jobs and patchy service delivery—including electrifying millions of homes in the townships and homelands that black South Africans were once confined to (even if the lights keep cutting out)—mean many are inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt. And many still support the ANC because it fought apartheid under Mandela. Local party hacks play into this with scaremongering that opposition parties will scrap social grants and other policies aimed at helping the poor.
The second is Mr Ramaphosa, a man who helped negotiate the end of apartheid and is widely held to be honest. Though the president has failed to live up to lofty expectations that he would reverse the rot of his predecessor, he is viewed favourably by 55.6% of South Africans, a share more than 9 percentage points higher than that enjoyed by his party.
The third reason is the state of opposition parties. The Democratic Alliance (DA) wants voters to reward it for its record of running local governments more cleanly and competently than the ANC. It should benefit from high turnout among the minorities (whites, people of Indian descent and “coloureds”, or mixed-race South Africans), who make up about one-fifth of the population. This was one of the reasons it surged to 26.9% of the vote in 2016. But most black South Africans view the DA unfavourably, largely because they see it as a “white party”, especially since the recent departure of several prominent black figures. One of those, Herman Mashaba, the rabble-rousing former DA mayor of Johannesburg, has set up his own party, ActionSA, which hopes to do well in that city and Pretoria, the administrative capital.
Another party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), offers a platform of hard-left racial nationalism and appeals to black voters who feel the ANC has sold them out. Founded in 2013 by Julius Malema, a former ANC youth leader, its slogan is “our land & jobs now”. For some, this is a bracing contrast to the ruling party’s waffle of “building better communities together”. Minorities find the EFF scary. But 29.4% of black voters view the party favourably, suggesting it has room to grow beyond the 8.2% and 10.8% it won in the elections in 2016 and 2019 respectively. Nevertheless a higher share of black South Africans (38.8%) are put off by the numerous allegations of corruption against the EFF, by Mr Malema’s race-baiting theatrics, and by his policies. His main ideas, such as seizing private land without compensation and nationalising big companies, have been tried in next-door Zimbabwe, causing its economy to collapse and prompting a large portion of Zimbabwe’s population to flee to South Africa.
Because the elections are local, the nationwide tally has no direct practical consequences. But people will see it as an omen of the ANC’s fortunes, and a vote of confidence—or the lack of it—in Mr Ramaphosa’s leadership. The idea that the ANC will not be in charge forever is starting to take hold. This matters not just to South Africa, but sounds a warning across the region, from Angola to Mozambique, where “liberation movements” have clung to power since the end of their wars for independence decades ago.
Also, if the ANC loses outright majorities in many more cities and towns, parties will probably have to work together. In this, these elections are a glimpse into the broader political future—which, under South Africa’s system of proportional representation, means coalitions. John Steenhuisen, the DA leader, says he is willing to work with any party save for the EFF, with which it had disastrous voting agreements in Johannesburg and other cities after 2016. But the ANC may prefer to team up with Mr Malema’s party.
That is one reason for gloom. The other is the sheer number of South Africans who will opt not to vote. In 1994 South Africans woke up before dawn to join long queues at polling stations in a celebration of multi-racial democracy. A generation later, only about one-third of eligible voters will cast a ballot, reckons Ipsos. For many South Africans the future appears dark, both literally and politically.
This is not a CAPTIS article. Originally, it was published here.