Carol Paton Writer at Large

Results from 13 municipal by-elections held on Wednesday indicate that the DA is looking good to take the Western Cape; the ANC could struggle to make 50% in Gauteng; and the Freedom Front is taking votes off the DA.

Independent election analyst Dawie Scholtz said that voting patterns looked broadly similar to the 2016 municipal elections, in which the ANC dropped below 50% in Gauteng. The ANC’s overall share in 2016 dropped below 60% for the first time to 55.68% and forced it into opposition in three major cities.

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While it is difficult to discern a trend from by-elections, which can be shaped by specific, local factors and are easily skewed by turnout, Scholtz says that in wards that are demographically homogenous, it is possible to treat a by-election result as a sample of what that group is thinking.

In Wednesday’s by-elections in Gauteng, the ANC retained two wards in the south of Johannesburg, but in both cases with a drop of five percentage points compared with 2016 election results. In the one, the ANC won 72% of the vote and in the other 73%.  

While this seems like a good result, Scholtz says it is “a red flag” for the ANC. “The ANC needs at least to match its 2016 level in townships to feel safe for 50% in Gauteng. Preferably they should be overperforming. Underperforming the voting pattern by as little as 2%-5% in the townships will be fatal in Gauteng province,” he says.

In northern KwaZulu-Natal, the ANC won a seat from the IFP in the Abaqulusi municipality, but the IFP did increase its share of the vote in several other by-elections in Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal. Recent opinion polls have showed the IFP gaining momentum in the lead-up to the election.

In the Western Cape, the DA won a seat in the southern Cape municipality of Hessequa, indicating that coloured voters are still behind the DA.

Scholtz says the result is hugely significant. “The DA is going up in the rural coloured vote. Coloured voters are going to be critical to whether the DA gets over 50% overall. To go below 50%, they would have to lose about 20% of their coloured support. There is nothing to indicate such a swing,” he says.

Early polls have put the DA in Western Cape at below 50%, a large drop from the 62.5% it got in the 2016 municipal election.

Wednesday’s by-elections also confirm the trend evident in the polls, which show the Freedom Front on the rise, eating into the DA’s share of the conservative white vote. In George on Wednesday, the DA retained its seat in a largely homogenous white ward but with a much reduced majority. Support for the Freedom Front rose by 14 percentage points to 17%.