Analysis: ANC’s well of urban support dries up

The loss of urban voters is a severe setback for a party which has taken them for granted.


For many, the abiding memory of South Africa’s 1994 elections is the sight of millions of poor township dwellers, swaddled in the yellow and green of the ANC and queuing in the morning dark to vote for the first time.

The moving sight of pensioners and teenagers cheerfully waiting their turn summed up the optimism of the ‘Mandela generation’ – those who saw the ANC as the guarantors of liberation and the best hope of breaking down apartheid’s iniquitous economic system.

The contrast with last week’s municipal elections could not be more pronounced. In the urban townships that house millions of deprived citizens and provide the bedrock of ANC support, voters stayed at home in their droves. In Diepsloot and Alexandra, sprawling informal settlements in Johannesburg, turnout reached a paltry 46%. In Soweto – the township famed for its 1976 uprising against the apartheid state – only 52% of the electorate cast a ballot.

For the ANC, which has long taken this deep reservoir of urban support for granted, the result represents a significant rebuke. For the first time in twenty years, the party claimed less than 60% of the popular vote, ending up on just 54%. The liberal Democratic Alliance and the hard-left Economic Freedom Fighters – resurgent opposition from both sides of the political spectrum – gleefully took their chance to embarrass the ANC in its urban heartlands, prising Port Elizabeth and Pretoria from its grasp and putting its control over Johannesburg in doubt. Chastened, the ANC can only console itself with continued popularity in rural areas.

For a party long used to supremacy at the polls, a rigorous post-mortem is necessary. The reasons for the ANC’s loss of urban support are many. Since the global commodities slump kicked in, the South African economy has repeatedly flirted with recession – the country’s Reserve Bank predicts growth of 0% this year. Overly dependent on the mining industry that has underpinned prosperity for decades, the ANC has given too little thought to boosting urban employment. Job creation has floundered, with official estimates suggesting that one in four South Africans are out of work, while a crumbling education system fails to prepare township youths for fiercely fought-over jobs. Twenty years after apartheid’s demise, incremental improvements have failed to dent the tough township existence eked out by millions.

Yet with tax receipts plunging, the government’s ability to pay for drastically needed urban renewal is floundering. ‘Service delivery’ – the term used to describe the provision of sanitation, education, housing and other basic services, is failing to match the expectations of a growing population. A poll eight days before the election found that only Cape Town – run by the Democratic Alliance – scored over 70 out of 100 on a survey of citizen satisfaction.

All of this has been presided over by the increasingly flat-footed leadership of Jacob Zuma. Mired in political and personal scandal since assuming his second-term in power, the president has focused on self-preservation at the expense of national prosperity. The president’s repeated improprieties – including spending R7.8m of public money on the inflated costs of home improvements – have led to a chasm in trust between the ANC and the public.

By contrast, the country’s opposition is on the move. The Democratic Alliance, led for the first time at an election by the energetic young black leader Mmusi Maimane and boosted by a reputation for administrative competency in Cape Town, won 29% of the popular vote. On the radical left, Julius Malema’s EFF continues to excite the disenfranchised with its persistent call for the nationalisation of the mines and the forced redistribution of white farmland, picking up 8.2% of the vote. Outflanked on both sides, the ANC has all too often lacked a modern vision, relying on outdated calls to revolutionary solidarity.

With intrigues over Zuma’s leadership sure to dominate the aftermath of the poll, that renewal may well be delayed. A wily political operator, Zuma is unlikely to leave unless assured of immunity from prosecution. Meanwhile, the ANC trundles ever closer to further disappointment in 2019. The opposition have a chance to keep up the pressure by improving areas once loyal to the ANC. But with an ANC victory in 2019 still by far the most likely outcome, responsibility for an economic renaissance will fall squarely on the shoulders of the ruling party. Unless the party can dust down moribund economic plans or find the courage to renew its leadership, further drift – for the ANC and South Africa – is assured.

David Thomas

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