One of the telltale signs of a ruling party in decline, at least based on the record of much of post-colonial Africa, is that it loses popular support in urban areas – ending up largely as a rural phenomenon.
This has certainly been the trend in SA, where we have witnessed the ANC’s share of the metropolitan vote decline with every election since 2009.
The trend reached crisis point in the 2016 local government elections when the party failed to secure outright majorities in Nelson Mandela Bay Metro, Johannesburg, Tshwane and Ekurhuleni.
These are metros where, just a few years earlier, an ANC election victory was regarded as a mere formality.
A temporary setback, ANC optimists wanted us to believe. All the party needed was to “unburden” itself of its then president, the scandal-prone and corruption-accused Jacob Zuma. Voters would be back in droves by the next elections, we were told.
The assumption was that the ANC had lost much of its urban support not because its deployees had failed to run the municipalities well and deliver services to residents, but that the stench of Zuma’s corruption was making voters reluctant to put their X next to the black, green and gold flag on ballot papers.
The next local government elections are a few weekends away now and not even the most optimistic ANC leaders can confidently say they will retain Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni without having to once again go into a coalition with opposition parties.
The situation does not look any better for the party in Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay, metros that are now in the hands of DA-led coalition administrations.
It may well be that claims that corruption has become worse under President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government are unfair, but the truth is that the current administration has had little success in convincing the public that it is winning the fight against graft in the public sector.
Personal protective equipment corruption scandals, the Digital Vibes saga and other revelations of the looting that has accompanied SA’s attempt to fight the spread of Covid reinforce the message that SA’s corruption crisis is much deeper than Zuma and the family that once occupied a now infamous compound near the Johannesburg Zoo in Saxonwold.
Not even the most optimistic ANC leaders can confidently say they will retain Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni without having to once again go into a coalition with opposition parties
One of the few ANC-controlled metros to buck the trend in 2016 was eThekwini, which includes SA’s third-biggest city.
It had its fair share of the factionalism that contributed to the collapse of ANC majorities in a number of other councils, but not to the extent that the party’s hegemony in the coastal city was threatened.
But the low voter turnout in ANC strongholds around the metro in the 2019 national and provincial elections, as well as the riots in July that followed Zuma’s jailing, have given opposition parties hope that even here the ruling party’s support will drop below 50%.
While the DA and the IFP have always been the ANC’s main rivals in eThekwini, the party to watch in this election is the EFF.
Its leader Julius Malema has been making some calculated moves that suggest he is hoping to capitalise on the fallout between the current ANC leadership and Zuma’s strong support base in eThekwini and other parts of KwaZulu-Natal.
He will be hoping that his tea meeting with Zuma at Nkandla and his stance against Zuma’s incarceration, along with various other actions, will persuade Zuma supporters to “punish” the Ramaphosa-led ANC at the polls by casting a protest vote for the EFF, instead of staying at home.
In the 2019 elections the ANC minimised the negative impact of its fallout with its former president by recruiting him to its election campaign, although he acquiesced begrudgingly.
This time around, especially after having spent some time in the custody of the department of correctional services, he may be too angry for the party to even contemplate asking him for help. Besides, his parole conditions as well as the state of his health may not allow it.
Without his tacit endorsement, can the party maintain its majority in eThekwini, given his continued popularity there?
If the ANC loses this metro, which incidentally is among those with the highest numbers of registered voters, and fails to gain outright majorities in the other metros where it lost absolute control in 2016, it will truly be on its way to becoming a rural party.
And given that the majority of voters are in the urban centres, it is perhaps safe to say the party’s march out of central government would have begun.