The former homeland areas of the Eastern Cape have been an electoral gold mine for the ANC. In 2009 the party received 81% of the votes cast in these areas, and in 2014, 82.5%. Even with the carnage of the 2016 local government elections, when the ANC lost control of Nelson Mandela Bay, Joburg and Tshwane, the former Transkei and Ciskei held strong for the ANC. Only the UDM of Bantu Holomisa, himself a former Transkei leader, provided some token opposition.

In 2019 things stayed much the same — 82.5% of the vote went to the ANC, with the EFF and a much-reduced UDM picking up the scraps.

Nothing to see here, then. Perhaps this particular part of SA is simply immune to the political storms that occupy the urban centres? Perhaps not.

The Xolobeni area has, over the past decade or more, been the site of intense conflict, both political and at times physical. The bone of contention is the titanium in the sand dunes of the Wild Coast — dunes that are the communal property of those living in the area and that are an integral part of their livelihood. If this titanium is extracted (through opencast mining), those affected would have their property, their source of income and their cultural heritage destroyed.

The latest development is a high court judgment in which judge Annali Basson reasserts the rights of the affected community to be consulted. Mineral resources minister Gwede Mantashe has indicated that the state will appeal.

We will end up with a toxic brew of local elites as both beneficiaries and judges

This is no simple matter — many members of the Xolobeni community would welcome the jobs and opportunities that come with major investment. In a context of extreme poverty, these sorts of disputes are matters of life and death.

The election results in the Xolobeni area this month tell an interesting story. The ANC share is down to 66%, from 97% in 2014. The EFF has moved from below 0.5% to just under 23%. The African Transformation Movement (ATM) picked up 7%.

This is a small area — only two voting districts and just over 1,000 registered voters, so it’s barely a blip on the electoral scoreboard. But if we extend our view slightly to the 4,000 potential voters in the ward containing Xolobeni, the patterns are still significantly different from those of the broader former Eastern Cape homelands — ANC support has fallen from the 90% range to 78%, with the EFF and the ATM being the major beneficiaries.

Wider implications

Why should this be meaningful if it stays at the level of a local dispute?

In early 2019 the Traditional & Khoisan Leadership Bill was passed by both houses of parliament (it awaits presidential signature). The bill is a direct attack on the livelihood and property rights of communities in areas under the control of traditional leaders. It will allow unelected traditional leaders, without consultation, to sign agreements with third parties to exploit mineral rights or initiate development projects in areas occupied by their "subjects".

Many communities could find themselves in a position similar to that of the people of Xolobeni.

A further piece of legislation, the Traditional Courts Bill, is before the National Council of Provinces. If this becomes law, people living under customary law will be forced to have local disputes adjudicated by local chiefs. We will end up with a toxic brew of local elites being the main beneficiaries of development projects, while sitting in judgment over community members whose livelihoods and lifestyles have been sacrificed.

Xolobeni may be a harbinger of things to come.

Perhaps when you’re raking in north of 65% of the vote a little slippage here and there is not too high a price to pay. When you’re in the mid-50s, every vote is going to count.

• Kimmie works at the Foundation for Human Rights. The opinions expressed here are his own. Data courtesy of the Electoral Commission of SA