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South Africa: Upcoming local polls seen as referendum on Ramaphosa

By Carien du Plessis
Posted on Friday, 29 October 2021 14:23

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, of the African National Congress (ANC), speaks during the launch of an election manifesto at Church square in Pretoria, South Africa, September 27, 2021. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Monday's (1 November) local government elections in South Africa is looking to be the most contested to date with a record number of 325 parties and more than 95000 candidates in the running.

While the governing African National Congress is hoping that these will result in a new leadership competent enough to overhaul the failing municipalities and restore the party’s waning credibility, the polls are also being viewed as a referendum on President Cyril Ramaphosa’s “renewal” project and anti-graft measures.

Attempts by Ramaphosa to rid the party of corrupt leaders have resulted in a backlash by supporters of former president Jacob Zuma and suspended secretary general Ace Magashule. Related to this, infighting over positions and patronage has seen at least a half dozen ANC candidates gunned down countrywide. Destructive “service delivery” protests have also become a daily occurrence.

Civil discontent with the inadequacies of local governments the ANC presides over some of the worst – has reached a high point, exacerbated by economic hardships deepened by the Covid-19 lockdown. A record number of 34.4% of the labour force (in the second quarter of the year) is unemployed.

The country is also still reeling in the wake of the violent and widespread riots in July, which saw malls and warehouses in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng looted and burnt down days after Zuma was imprisoned for disregarding a court order forcing him to testify in front of a commission of inquiry into corruption. More than 300 people died, but the masterminds are yet to be identified and held to account.

ANC’s election prospects

Still, ANC leaders appear bullish about the party’s electoral prospects.

A member of the party’s national executive committee tells The Africa Report that the party’s own surveys show it will once again get an overall majority of the votes. The party’s campaigners and activists do extensive polls during their door-to-door campaigns.

In addition, an independent Media24 survey published by News24 last week showed that the ANC could get 56% of the national vote if 45% of registered voters turn out to vote. This could be slightly higher than the party’s 2016 all-time low of 53.91%, when voter turnout was 57.97% and fuelled by unhappiness over Zuma’s presidency.

The ANC’s support could, however, further weaken in cities like Johannesburg, Tshwane (Pretoria) and Nelson Mandela Bay (Gqeberha), where the party’s vote dropped to below 50% in 2016 and which have all been governed by unstable coalitions since.

An increase in scheduled power cuts by energy utility Eskom – resulting in power outages for at least six to eight hours a day – due to mismanagement and infrastructure failures could harm the party’s prospects in urban areas, prompting some high-ranking ANC leaders to – without proof – privately blame opposition party supporters within Eskom for the “sabotage” ahead of the elections.

Some Ramaphosa supporters in the ANC speculate that the power cuts are deliberate attempts by corrupt elements in Eskom to sabotage Ramaphosa’s reforms.

Speaking on the outages this week, Ramaphosa said: “I don’t believe it was intentional. The breakage of machines is not intentional. There could be some negligence. There could be some oversight that did not happen, but it is not intentional.”

Ramaphosa’s deputy, David Mabuza, has admitted that the energy crisis has harmed the party on the campaign trail. Two of Ramaphosa’s closest allies in Cabinet, Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe and Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan, called media briefings this week to try mitigate the electricity fall-out.

Data consultant and elections analyst Paul Berkowitz mapped out scenarios for five cities which take into consideration the expected results in wards and on the proportional ballot, and which shows that the ANC will lose seats in all five.

In Johannesburg, the party could bleed support to newcomer ActionSA as well as to some smaller parties, with Berkowitz’s model showing that the ANC could be left with 83 out of the 270 seats, down from its current 124, making a coalition very tricky.

The party has campaigned hard in the city, with Ramaphosa addressing residents every few days in the past month.

His message has been that the ANC wants enough votes – more than 50% – to enable it to govern without a coalition and to implement its “reform” agenda to combat corruption.

Ramaphosa also told the party’s national executive committee in July, ahead of the campaign, that “coalition governments are incapable of effectively driving development, providing quality services and ensuring proper accountability”. Most of the municipal coalitions after 2016 have been unstable and have seen some smaller parties making disproportional demands.

Ramaphoria

Fortunately for the ANC, public sentiment is in Ramaphosa’s favour. Ever since he took on the presidency in February 2018, Ramaphosa has consistently polled higher than the ANC itself, and higher than any other current leader.

The opposition Democratic Alliance has also felt the effects. One of its leaders in the Western Cape, where the party is currently in control, has admitted that the party was worried about losing votes here to the ANC due to Ramaphosa’s popularity.

ANC supporters in rural areas and impoverished communities have received Ramaphosa warmly while rejecting their own local leaders.

For example in the sprawling Phuthaditjhaba settlement in the Free State province, residents booed the local mayor off the stage during a rally addressed by Ramaphosa. The municipality has an erratic supply of water and electricity, potholed roads, and irregular rubbish collection services. Residents say they’re tired of the promises.

In another instance, a wailing woman flung herself at Ramaphosa in a community on the outskirts of the City of Mbombela in the Mpumalanga province. She appealed for help, claiming local ANC leaders threatened to beat up her son if she complained about their misadministration in the neighbourhood.

Many of the party’s current municipal leaders have deliberately been excluded from Ramaphosa’s campaign – and also from the ANC’s election candidate lists – because of their dismal track record and because they were put in place during Zuma’s administration, says an ANC leader who is on the party’s campaign team.

“You will notice that, wherever the president goes, he doesn’t campaign with the incumbents so that the image of renewal is portrayed.”

Zuma parties

Zuma’s supporters might try alternative tactics to exercise influence after the elections. Elections analyst Wayne Sussman says there are several political parties that closely aligned to Zuma, with most of their support concentrated in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal, as well as in the adjacent areas of the Eastern Cape province.

These include the African Transformation Movement, whose spokesperson Mzwanele Manyi, also speaks on behalf of the Jacob Zuma Foundation. “There’s an obscure party called the African Freedom Movement, which is led by Jacob Zuma’s pastor, and there is a party called the Abanto Batho Congress, which is going to do well in parts of KwaZulu-Natal which is linked to a former backer  (Philani Mavundla) of Jacob Zuma,” he says.

Support for these parties could be a gauge of Zuma’s political strength. The ANC could even be forced into coalitions with some of these parties in smaller municipalities, which might give them the ability to punch above their weight and make demands on the bigger parties.

Publically Zuma pledged to vote ANC. Earlier this month he said in a recorded address: “I should add my voice by pleading with those who are saying [they will vote for other parties], to stand up and vote, especially vote for the party that brought freedom, the ANC.”

But many of his supporters are either quietly refusing to campaign for the ANC or openly criticising Ramaphosa, for example the tweeting former spokesperson of the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association, Carl Niehaus.

Zuma has not been in the public eye much, ostensibly due to his health. He was released from prison almost two months ago on medical parole.

Magashule, too, has remained low key. Due to his suspension (he has been charged with corruption and is currently out on bail) from the party he’s not allowed to speak on its behalf in public, but he tells The Africa Report that he was working in his branch and local community.

One of his close allies was recently suspended from the party for allegedly giving money to those who were dropped off the ANC’s list by Ramaphosa’s allies to run as independent ward candidates against the party.

Focus on 2022

Ramaphosa’s closest allies are already looking past Monday’s elections towards the party’s elective conference in December 2022. “We are pushing for [Ramaphosa] to run uncontested. If he is contested, he will win by a very big margin,” one of Ramaphosa’s campaigners says. “He is stronger than he has ever been right now. People understand what he has been up against.”

Another campaigner says if Ramaphosa is in a strong position, it would strengthen the chances of his allies to be elected to the party’s top six positions. They are trying to avoid a “compromise” list that is divvied up equally between the factions like in 2017. Head of the presidency in the ANC, Sibongile Besani, is being positioned to take over the powerful secretary general position from the suspended Magashule.

Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu has, meanwhile, started positioning herself as a possible challenger to Ramaphosa, and it’s unclear as yet how much support she will get. She threw her weight behind Ramaphosa in 2017 after her presidential campaign failed to take off.

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