More than 250 local elections will be held in each one of South Africa’s municipalities on 1 November. More than 10,000 councillors have to be elected. For this reason, more than 95,000 candidates have been nominated, including more than 1,500 independent candidates.
How they have communicated it to the public during their campaigns has been largely determined by their election manifestos, the media debates between the parties, their election advertisements and their impromptu comments during the campaign.
The scale of the election makes it impossible to reduce it to a single answer of what is at stake and how the different parties articulate it. It would also be incorrect to assume that the parties’ presentation of the essence of the election is the same as that of the public.
The main parties – the African National Congress (ANC), Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) – portrayed the election in different terms, which is in itself important to analyse.
Two approaches have dominated the election campaign. The African National Congress and Economic Freedom Fighters concentrated on national issues and used national campaigns to reach the voters. The Democratic Alliance also used a national campaign but concentrated much more on local issues of service delivery.
This interplay between the national and the local is an important contributor towards developing an understanding of what this election is about.
The election is not only about who will govern the municipalities. It will also show what is happening in party politics in South Africa, what the latest trends are, how the still relatively new leaders of some parties are performing, whether identity politics is emerging as a feature of South African politics, and whether coalition governments are a long-term feature or a transitional phenomenon.
African National Congress
The African National Congress is the governing party at national level, and in most of the provinces and majority of local councils. Its election manifesto and pronouncements by its main leaders concentrated very much on economic development and job creation.
Its emphasis is, therefore, on socio-economic improvement, which depends on policies developed in the national and provincial spheres.
Local authorities have less capacity for economic development but can provide the local infrastructure and services to enable that development. The African National Congress’s electoral approach has been to avoid a focus on local service delivery and municipal infrastructural development. That’s because this is the governance sector in which mismanagement and lack of capacity are most visible.
Where it is unavoidable to address it, African National Congress President Ramaphosa has apologised for the bad state of affairs and distanced himself from the malpractices of the past.
A feature of this election was how most parties tried to concentrate on their own records of government in the past and their successes. The African National Congress and Ramaphosa, therefore, used the African National Congress government’s successes with the economic and social relief programme during the COVID-19 pandemic as a blueprint for its local recovery initiatives.
It, therefore, approached this election as a national scale and its local candidates did not feature much in the campaigns.
The main thrust of the Democratic Alliance’s campaign has been that they can deliver the results at local level:
These results are mainly in the form of local services and infrastructure. Their record of governance in the councils where they are the majority party has been their main reference point in the campaign. It is, therefore, meant to convince the voters that their track record should be expanded to councils controlled by the African National Congress and other parties.
The African National Congress and commentators challenged this approach by claiming that these successes only apply to the areas of higher-income residents and business areas, and not to informal settlements and townships. The notion of a racial divide at local level is, therefore, the African National Congress’s rebuttal of the Democratic Alliance’s messaging.
Controversial in this election was the Democratic Alliance’s poster debacle at Phoenix in KwaZulu-Natal. Though not part of its main campaign strategy, it exploited identity politics in an Indian and African context. It is per definition a divisive and high-risk approach, which exposed the problematic elements of nationalist politics.
The Democratic Alliance is one of the protagonists of coalition politics at local level, but its experiences – especially in the Gauteng metropolitan councils – motivated it to campaign for absolute majorities. Coalition negotiations after the elections will, however, become a major task for the DA. Its federal chairperson, Helen Zille’s earlier pronouncements on the African National Congress as a likely partner, lately attracted quite some attention. Zille indicated that the African National Congress do not share the Democratic Alliance’s values and therefore a coalition with them will be inconceivable. Other Democratic Alliance leaders, however, want to be more pragmatic and not foreclose any of the options.
Economic Freedom Fighters
The Economic Freedom Fighters staged a very visual campaign with prominent posters and billboards. Defining itself as a socialist party in its election manifesto of more than 570 pages, it found it difficult to identify a niche area of itself left of the African National Congress.
Its focus on the past on land and expropriation without compensation could not evolve into a national campaign issue. Its lack of experience in local government also made it difficult to use the approach of the other parties of presenting their track records as a justification for their support.
The Economic Freedom Fighters followed the African National Congress in concentrating on national issues. Its campaign, however, did not develop a central theme. Because there were not really controversial political eruptions during the election campaigns, there were no real opportunities for the Economic Freedom Fighters capitalise on them.
The smaller parties like ActionSA and the Freedom Front Plus pursued local or provincial campaigns and concentrated on local issues. It presents a view of how these parties approach local government as part of the family of governments.
What’s at stake
The 2021 election will define for citizens important aspects of South Africa’s political future. What is the African National Congress’s future and what was the impact of Ramaphosa on this election?
In which direction are the Economic Freedom Fighters and Democratic Alliance moving? Is there a future for independent candidates in South African politics, especially in the 2024 election?
This is what the 2021 election is actually about.