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Race rules

May 12 2011 00:00 Troye Lund

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Voters are more dissatisfied than they have ever been before with the way their local municipalities function. Violent public protests and opinion polls confirm that. However, when voting at the 18 May local government elections will that unhappiness translate into a significant swing away from the African National Congress, which controls the vast majority of South Africa’s 284 local municipalities?

While the Democratic Alliance hopes to cash in on the high levels of discontent, independent political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi says: “This isn’t the election that will see a swing away from the ANC.” He says disgruntled ANC voters are more likely to abstain from voting than give their vote to an opposition party or one of the 746 independent candidates.

That’s exactly what happened in the 2006 local government elections. In the months running up to that poll the violent services delivery protests, as well as opinion surveys, suggested the ANC was going to lose significant ground. Voter turnout in 2006 was low at 48%. While that was consistent with trends for local elections worldwide, in SA it also confirmed how traditional ANC voters voiced unhappiness with the party by withholding their vote instead of transferring it to another party. In 2006, the ANC not only won the majority of seats countrywide with 66,3% of the vote it also achieved the highest majorities in areas marred by the most violent public protests.

Centre for the Study of Democracy director Steven Friedman says that dichotomy is easily explained. Protests and dissatisfaction tend to be directed at specific individuals – a certain mayor or councillor – and not at the ANC itself. In other words, protestors feel individuals they protest against are letting their party, the ANC, down.

The question then is how long can that pattern go on for? Can we assume dissatisfied voters/protestors promised an improvement in their conditions they were protesting against five years ago are now disillusioned enough to transfer their vote to another party or individual? Surveys aimed at measuring the electorate’s mood for this year’s municipal elections certainly suggest dissatisfaction remains high because nothing has improved in the way of services delivery and accountability at local government level.

They seem to confirm what DA leader Helen Zille refers to as a continual “erosion of trust” with politics and specifically the ANC. For example, an Idasa survey polled rural voters in 21 municipalities and found almost 80% were totally dissatisfied with the services their municipalities provided. Among the reasons cited for the lack of services delivery were corruption, dysfunctional councils and ward committees, the inability of municipalities to listen to local people and mismanagement within municipalities.

A poll by TNS Research Surveys found just more than half (51%) of all urban South Africans are dissatisfied with the services currently provided by their local council. Effectively, that means there’s no change from the 52% figure recorded by TNS in February last year. Local government, the survey concluded, had effectively achieved nothing in 2010 in terms of improving people’s perceptions of their services delivery.

Cosatu leader in the Western Cape – and ANC mayoral candidate for Cape Town – Tony Ehrenreich dismisses those findings, saying they aren’t a reflection on the ANC. He says for every opinion poll that proves one thing there are others that prove the opposite and argues other polls reflect badly on other parties. For example, he refers to the City of Cape Town’s own customer satisfaction survey, which found the majority of its poor people were unhappy with the services delivered by the DA-led city government. Ehrenreich points to the fact that the DA has also had to deal with corrupt councillors, and says: “People appreciate that there have been similar difficulties in all parties.”

Nevertheless, the voter turnout in the 2009 national election was billed by the DA as an indication of a political tide turning against the ANC. In that election voters came out in record numbers (77,3% of the country’s 23m registered voters cast ballots – the highest since 1994) and it also saw the official opposition, the DA, record its best results ever. The party gained almost 1m new voters, which took its countrywide count from 1 931 201 to just less than 3m – marking growth of 50%. The DA is the only party to have grown in all three of the most recent elections.

Zille attributes that to a “new fluidity in South African politics”. During the 2009 campaign she said: “The ANC is the weakest it’s been since 1994 and the opposition is growing stronger as each day passes. It takes time for the public’s trust to erode to the point that voters decide to do something about it at the polls. But when that trust begins to erode it quickly reaches a tipping point. Once that point is reached there’s no way back.”

However, Friedman says: “In the 2009 election there were some interesting swings. But it wasn’t because voters were changing loyalty. It was still identity voting. Coloured and white people came out in their numbers to vote against the ANC (blacks).”

Matshiqi says although the DA has made significant gains in black areas since 1994 that has to be understood in the context of it coming off a very low base. He says the bottom line is the DA isn’t going to be able to really dent the ANC vote because it can’t overcome the challenge of race and how it influences voting patterns. “There’s an instinctive mistrust (among black people in ANC strongholds) of the DA, as they perceive it to be a party that looks after the interests of whites and privileged blacks. Whether that’s true or not is less important than the fact that’s the perception.”

Matshiqi adds the formation of COPE offered the most potential to break racial voting patterns. The explosion of COPE, he says, was the explosion of hope.

While voter turnout will be a key factor in the post-election analysis for the 2011 poll as analysts and politicians use it to measure the mood among voters, election victories on decreasing voter turnout poses a potential legitimacy crisis for the ANC. However, the Human Sciences Research Council – which has always been very accurate in its pre-election analysis – is predicting this year’s municipal poll will see a large voter turnout. If that’s indeed so, the question is whether it confirms the shift Zille talks about or whether it confirms there’s going to be more of the same identity voting which, ultimately, secures another ANC landslide based on renewed promises to crack down on errant councillors and municipal systems vulnerable to political manipulation and corruption.

Political analysts are tending toward the latter, saying even if the opposition makes some gains it will not be until the ANC splits again that the ruling party will face any real challenge. However, the DA appears to be progressing in its bid to consolidate the opposition into a united alliance that will be able to “take opposition politics to a new level”. Read: transcend racial voting patterns. Patricia de Lille’s Independent Democrats are on board and sources close to COPE say party leader Mosiuoa Lekota is also keen.

It will be interesting to watch what COPE does if it wins enough support in the Nelson Mandela Bay metropolitan area to become the kingmaker in this election. Would it form a coalition government with the DA? Either way, the next three years will be critical to establish whether an opposition emerges that allows SA’s voters to make choices at the ballot box based on the performance of different political parties and not race.
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