WAYNE SUSSMAN: Locally focused parties the biggest winners of the municipal elections
Voters opted to repeat the coalition experiment, despite its chaos and poor performance record
The ANC and DA went into the recent municipal elections in a vulnerable state and emerged worse for wear. The ANC fell well below the 50% mark nationally, while the DA slumped to a position not just worse than 2016 but worse than its 2011 performance.
The ANC lost the outright majorities it held in every province, including Mpumalanga, where the party had never before suffered the indignity of concerning itself with having to court potential suitors for coalitions. The DA thought Nelson Mandela Bay would experience a much more stable DA-led coalition after November 1. Instead the party almost certainly finds itself assigned to the opposition benches.
You become a large party by being able to convince diverse quarters of the electorate that you represent them and their interests. In the Thabo Mbeki era, 70% of voters put their crosses next to the ANC’s logo in 2004, but by 2016, English-speaking white voters, Afrikaans-speaking white voters, Indian voters and coloured voters, especially those in urban areas or towns with large populations, had broken heavily for the DA. The party also received a record number of votes from black South Africans.
In the most recent election, many voters turned their backs on parties that previously succeeded in convincing South Africans to back those that represented the many, rather than specific groups. Many Afrikaans-speaking white voters hitched their wagons to the Freedom Front Plus FF+), for instance, and more coloured voters backed Gayton McKenzie’s Patriotic Alliance (PA) and to a lesser extent Patricia de Lille’s GOOD and parties such as the Cape Coloured Congress in Cape Town or the Northern Alliance in Nelson Mandela Bay.
Incidentally, a reason McKenzie was more successful than De Lille was that he was clear about who he represented and what his goals were, and his solutions found favour in places such as Eldorado Park, Reiger Park and parts of the Western Cape platteland. Yes, his views on foreigners caused upset among the chattering classes, but his consistent messaging ensured his party emerged as kingmaker in a host of municipalities.
In a record number of smaller municipalities, voters decided to walk away from the ANC, DA and even the EFF, and support local parties. Voting for a party that is stationed in your far-flung municipality is now more appealing than voting for a deployee from Luthuli House or the DA’s national office. These parties promised local solutions to local challenges, rather than a half-baked cookie-cutter approach to endemic problems. They usually fielded candidates who had defected from one of the major parties or people who had a strong standing in the local community.
This election also saw the wily IFP (IFP) roar back after suffering during the Jacob Zuma era and being hurt by breakaways, most notably the National Freedom Party. This was the first election for the IFP where it was not led by founder and talismanic figure Mangosuthu Buthelezi. New leader Velenkosini Hlabisa ran a low-key campaign, with his nonagenarian predecessor gracing party posters and billboards, but managed to sweep most of the Zululand and Umkhanyakude districts in northern KwaZulu-Natal and make giant strides in places such as Newcastle and uMhlatuze (Richards Bay).
Former Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba’s ActionSA had an impressive electoral debut. The party took a gamble by only contesting four metros and two other municipalities. It paid off. The party beat the EFF for third place in Johannesburg and obtained 9% of the vote in Tshwane. ActionSA did not win any wards but picked up significant support in Dobsonville and Bryanston, the party’s message resonating with a diverse section of voters.
ActionSA is set to be a key role player in Tshwane, but could be left out in the cold in Johannesburg, where it would need to come to some arrangement with both the EFF and the DA. Right now, those parties seem to prefer sniping at each other to considering how to weaken the ANC further at local government level.
The EFF grew in this election, going from 8% of the national vote to 10%, whereas the ANC’s share fell eight percentage points and the DA’s five points. The party made impressive incursions in KwaZulu-Natal, growing from eight to 24 seats in eThekwini, and the numbers in Mpumalanga were also very reassuring for the party. The EFF’s gains were key to bringing the ANC below 50% in a number of municipalities across the country. It is also kingmaker in more municipalities today than before the election.
Even so, it could have done far better. The party went backwards in Johannesburg and Tshwane, and it lost significant ground in Polokwane and Rustenburg. The EFF appears to have lost some of its charm in key places where it originally did well.
This was the lowest turnout in a local government election, and adding salt to the democratic participation wound is the fact that, unlike national and provincial elections, turnout at the municipal level was on an upward trajectory. However, service delivery is primarily linked to local government, and the way municipalities are run has a direct bearing on people’s daily lives. Turnout in this election fell sharply from 58% to 46% — democratic participation was a bigger loser even than the ANC and the DA.
The DA’s hidden weapon in local government elections has traditionally been turnout differential — it is more effective in getting its voters to the polls than the ANC. This held true in Tshwane this time around, with opposition party voters clearly more motivated than traditional ANC voters. While the DA lost a number of seats, it has a far clearer path to a stable coalition in Tshwane than in 2016, when the EFF could sink it at any moment. This had a lot to do with the turnout differential.
However, what happened in Tshwane is not what happened elsewhere. In many other parts of the country, the DA lost its turnout differential advantage. Have opposition voters started to give up, or was this just a temporary lapse in hyper participation? South Africans who have lived under complex coalition arrangements for the last five years have not generally seen an improvement in service delivery. On the contrary, these councils were often beset by dysfunctionality and chaos.
Yet more South Africans started their day on November 2 living in towns or cities where coalitions would be needed. Instead of escaping the chaos and giving stronger mandates to the ANC, DA or IFP, voters opted to repeat the coalition experiment, this time on a far grander scale. This will see parties such as the EFF, ActionSA, FF+ and PA take more executive positions in local government.
Those parties will be delighted with the power, influence and patronage potential this brings, but many dangers lurk. It is harder to execute campaign promises during these austere times, and it is even harder when you are in a coalition of many moving parts. The newcomers run the risk of getting the same admonishment in 2026 as the ANC and DA got this time around.
As soon as a party takes an executive position, the luxury of offering commentary and criticism from the opposition seats in council — or on social media — dissipates. They need to think carefully before signing on that dotted line.
• Sussman is an independent election analyst.
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