On Monday November 1 South Africans go to the polls to give their stamp of approval – or disapproval – to their municipal governments. Former US president Barack Obama observed that, “There’s no such thing as a vote that doesn’t matter”. The question is: how much will Monday’s vote matter for the future of our municipalities and for our democratic system?
The elections will be held against the background of a debilitating pandemic involving socially and economically crippling lockdowns; a struggling economy; and bitter factional power struggles in the governing party. To this one must add record levels of unemployment, poverty, corruption and other crime – all set against the background of multiple broken and almost bankrupt municipalities. In July this litany of problems found destructive expression in the worst rioting and looting of our democratic era.
Local government is the political coalface between citizens and government – the place where every citizen feels most directly the impact of government policies and actions, or the lack thereof.
However, throughout South Africa citizens are experiencing local government as dysfunctional and incapable of delivering even the most basic services. Elected councillors and officials are viewed as corrupt, incompetent, and unqualified. Self-enrichment, nepotism and abuse by criminal gangs are rife. Tax revenues intended to improve the quality of life of ordinary citizens seldom reach the people in any shape or form.
The Auditor-General’s 2019/20 municipal audit (the most recent) gave only 27 – or 11% out of South Africa’s 257 municipalities – a clean audit. A separate report prepared for Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA) in August, confirmed that the vast majority of South Africa’s municipalities are in dire financial straits, are dysfunctional or are on the verge of collapse.
According to the report, 64 municipalities (24.9%) are considered high-risk and dysfunctional; 111 are at medium risk; and only 16 (5.45%) are stable (most of them run by the opposition Democratic Alliance). 163 municipalities are under financial duress; 108 have unfunded budgets; and 29 have been placed under administration. More recent research reveals that a further 43 municipalities are on the verge of collapse.
It is under these sad circumstances that incumbent municipal governments are pleading with voters to “give them another chance” when they cast their votes on Monday. Too often the response will be voter apathy – even in relatively well run DA municipalities.
According to Municipal IQ, another indicator of the parlous state of our municipalities has been a sharp increase in the “number and intensity” of service delivery protests – following a lockdown- induced lull last year.
Municipal IQ also warns that during the 2021 municipal election, service delivery protests may not be so subdued as they have been during previous local elections. “This may be a function of political
factionalism, but more than anything as a result of the severe socio-economic pressures, such as
unemployment, against floundering municipal services.”
Will people increasingly express their views through service delivery protests rather than through the ballot box?
Another sign of citizens’ impatience is the extent to which they have taken to maintaining and repairing their towns and services themselves. These actions extend to civic organisations and other groups across racial and class lines, often in conjunction with each other.
While political parties bicker and squabble in council meetings over power, control and access to lucrative tenders, these unelected, volunteer civic groups are getting the job done.
Why would such citizens want to vote for dysfunctional municipalities?
It is clear that the mistrust of political systems, institutions, parties and leaders runs deep. The few reliable pre-election polls all suggest high levels of voter apathy and a large stay-away vote. This may follow a global trend in an age of populism, radicalism and street protests, but in South Africa the trend is driven by very indigenous motives and causes.
Research by the respected Konrad Adenauer Foundation shows a disturbing picture of declining voter turnout in South Africa from 89% in the 1999 national election to a mere 66% in 2019. Voter turnout is even bleaker when one considers the number of people who vote as a proportion of the eligible voting age population (VAP). By this measure eligible voter participation declined from 86% in 1994 to 49% in 2019.
Trust in our institutions and political system has also plunged. An Afrobarometer survey conducted in August found that local government was at the very bottom of the pile and was trusted “somewhat” or “a lot” by only 24% of respondents. Equally, trust in political parties had plummeted.
Much of the current apathy could be the result of the abnormal conditions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. But more impactful may be the failure of government at all levels to improve the circumstances in which the great majority of South Africans live. The promise of 1994 has been dissipated in a miasma of failed service delivery, state capture and corruption.
So, when voters go to the polls next week, those who will make the effort, what do they hope to achieve? After all, they have seen and heard it all before, with little if anything positive to show.
The few opinion polls that have been conducted in the run-up to the election all suggest serious losses for the ANC. But other parties may also suffer losses.
The expectation is that voter apathy and a punitive stay-away vote may reduce the ANC’s 55.65% majority in 2016 to below 50%. The Independent Electoral Commission of SA (IEC) has reported that only 65% of the 40 million eligible citizens estimated by SA Statistics, are registered, down 10% from 2016. According to an Ipsos poll in August, 49,3% of voters would vote for the ANC (compared with 55,65% in 2016 and 57,5% in 2019). 17.9% will support the DA (24.57% in 2016, 20.77% in 2019), and 14.5% will vote for the EFF (up from 8.31% in 2016, 10.8% in 2019.
Should the ANC fall below 50% coalition forming will be the order of the day.
An astonishing 325 political parties will participate in the elections. Most have no track record, no clear policies, and no national presence or representation in the National Assembly – but they will inevitably eat away support from the main parties – meaning that in many municipalities there will be no outright winners. This will result in a raft of new governing coalitions, many of which will be unworkable – as experience since 2016 has shown. None of the three metros that were governed by coalitions after 2016 remained stable. After this election all three Gauteng metros plus Nelson Mandela Bay and Durban may end up with coalition governments.
The above-mentioned factors and trends will have clear implications for the future of our constitutional democracy. Lower voter turnouts – with non-participants exceeding the number of voters; dysfunctional governments paralysed by corruption and incompetence; active citizens increasingly stepping into the breach to provide essential services – do not bode well for representative democratic government.
A recent Afrobarometer survey found that 67% of South Africans would be willing to forego elections if a non-elected government could provide security, housing, and jobs. 46% would be ‘very willing’ to do so – a chilling prospect for the future of democracy. The question is: will Monday’s election signal a continuation of the general decline – or will it represent a turning point with coalitions that can restore effective and accountable government in our municipalities?
The decision is in the hands of the electorate – at least, for now.
By Stef Terblanche, independent political risk analyst and member of the FW de Klerk Foundation Panel of Contributors. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.
29 October 2021