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The number of political parties in SA has increased significantly from the 19 that participated in the first democratic elections in 1994. In both 2011 and 2016 the number of political parties grew. But this year the number has increased exponentially.

More than 500 are now registered with the Electoral Commission of SA (IEC). More than 300 will be participating in the November 2021 local government election. In addition, more than 1,500 independent candidates will participate in the poll.

Against this background, there are divergent views about the uniqueness of this election compared to the previous ones.

Despite the increased number of participants in this election, some see the race as still being between the ANC and the two big opposition parties, the DA and the EFF.

A counter view is that the political landscape has widened, thus expanding the competition beyond the three major parties.

Based on my academic work as a political scientist and a historian who specialises in African historical and political issues, I think either of these is possible. But I think it’s more plausible that the smaller political parties will upset the top three parties, given the changed political landscape.

The rise in political parties putting forward candidates, and the explosion in the number of independents, mean that it’s no longer simply a race among the three big ones.

First, it’s important to remember that this is a municipal poll, not national and provincial elections. Local elections provide a platform for a wider range of political parties.

Second, the fact that the number of new political parties has increased significantly could mean that the plans of the three main parties are derailed. In the main, the new parties are formed by politicians who were once associated with the three main parties. Some even enjoy a good following.

In all probability, their supporters and their sympathisers might vote for them, drawing away votes from the big players.

Third, the increased number of independent candidates poses a challenge to the three main political parties. Even if none of them attract a larger following, they might take enough from the three main political parties to deny them control of municipalities.

Depending on the popularity of the ANC, DA and EFF in a given municipality, independent candidates might win seats or simply take enough votes to deny any of the three main parties an outright majority.

Fourth, with so many political parties and so many independent candidates, the prospect of coalitions in certain municipalities is a reality that cannot be ignored. While it is true that the ANC, DA and EFF enjoy more support compared to the other parties, there is a possibility that smaller parties could gang up against the big three to run some municipalities.

Fifth, not all provinces are the same. In KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), for example, the IFP cannot be ignored. In fact, it poses a bigger threat to the ANC than the DA and the EFF combined.

Apart from the fact that the IFP has strategically retained its founder, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, as its face and a drawcard, it has also benefited from the mistakes made by both the ANC and the National Freedom Party (NFP). The NFP did well in 2011 but did not participate in the 2016 elections.

Internal squabbles in the ANC and the NFP benefited the IFP in the 2016 local elections. Some of their members and followers did not vote or simply voted for the IFP.

While there may have been a slight change in each of these parties as they tried to regroup, the reality is that they are still not united.

On the other hand, the IFP seems to be sailing smoothly in KZN. Therefore, in this election, it is likely to win more municipalities than it did in 2016.

Voter apathy

Another factor which is hard to ignore is voter apathy. While it is true that many South Africans are members or supporters of the ANC, DA or EFF, the bad state of local municipalities — a lack of water, broken infrastructure and neglect — has dampened the spirit of the electorate.

Voters might just elect to stay away. Already, some have indicated that they will not vote due to lack of service delivery.

Another related point is that other political parties could win a municipality due to a combination of factors. They would count on their own members, other sympathisers who do not belong to any political party, new voters, as well as some disgruntled members from the three main political parties.

It’s therefore too simplistic to argue that the race for the 2021 local government elections is only between the ANC on the one hand and the DA and the EFF on the other. At national level, the DA and the EFF are the second- and third-largest political parties, but when it comes to local elections, this trend isn’t guaranteed.

• Mngomezulu is professor of political science at the University of the Western Cape

This article first appeared in The Conversation Africa


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