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Aug 2, 2016 | 09:03 GMT

5 mins read

What South Africa's Municipal Elections Will Reveal

An African National Congress rally July 31 in Johannesburg, South Africa, aimed at shoring up support in advance of Aug. 3 municipal elections. A poor showing in those races could bode ill for the ruling ANC and its leader, President Jacob Zuma.

In South Africa, where one party dominates national politics, municipal elections offer smaller parties a chance to establish a foothold. This is how the Democratic Alliance became the largest opposition party and the principal challenger to the ruling African National Congress (ANC). Now the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a Marxist-nationalist party founded in 2013, are hoping to follow a similar path beginning Aug. 3, when offices in districts and municipalities in all nine provinces will be up for grabs. Other opposition parties, especially the Democratic Alliance, have their sights set on victory in major metropolitan areas, which they hope could propel them forward when general elections are held in 2019.

The EFF's goal for these elections is modest: It is urging voters in Mankweng, Limpopo province, to give it control of its first municipality. Its caution reflects the reality that despite its growing strength among the impoverished, underemployed and undereducated black South African majority, the EFF would struggle right now to win seats in any major metropolitan area. But Mankweng, a small township in the country's northernmost province, is a prize in its own right. It is home to the country's platinum mining sector and the important Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union. A victory there could allow the EFF to finally demonstrate its ability to govern and potentially to make serious gains in the future.

If the EFF manages a victory in Limpopo, it could help raise the party's national profile. In the past, starting small proved to be a winning strategy for the Democratic Alliance, which slowly grew from its support base in Cape Town, where it won in the 2006 elections, eventually taking control of the Western Cape provincial government in 2009. Today, this power base enables the Democratic Alliance to challenge the ANC from the political center. The party appeals to South Africa's white and liberal constituents as well as members of the black middle class, who desire a quality of life unattached to government welfare. The EFF hopes to achieve similar success, beginning in Limpopo.

If the ANC suffers setbacks in municipal elections, South Africa's opposition parties could take that momentum into campaigns for the country's 2019 general elections.

Poor governance has put several large, ANC-controlled municipalities — including Johannesburg, Pretoria and Port Elizabeth — into contention in the upcoming elections. Polling shows the Democratic Alliance leading in each of these three cities. Though pre-election polling data in South Africa is not always reliable, the country's financial woes have put the ANC on the defensive and emboldened opposition parties. The Democratic Alliance would relish victory in one or several of these cities. And if it takes charge, the party hopes to showcase its ability to provide superior service and governance, likely helping it consolidate control of any newly won area.

Municipal election results will have no direct bearing on the ANC's hold on national power. But if the ANC suffers setbacks in municipal elections, South Africa's opposition parties could take that momentum into campaigns for the country's 2019 general elections. Losing control of prominent metropolitan areas — especially Johannesburg and Pretoria, the commercial and administrative capitals of South Africa — would cause concern for the ANC for two reasons. First, it would raise questions about how quickly voter support for the party was eroding, raising the possibility that even more blocs of voters could abandon the ANC. Second, it would draw greater scrutiny of South African President Jacob Zuma and his performance as the head of the ANC.

Losses would be concerning for the ANC, but they would not necessarily create a crisis in the party. Losing support in metropolitan areas with diverse electoral constituencies is different from losing support in a general election. South Africa's next general elections are still three years away, and even though Zuma will be reaching the end of his constitutionally mandated two-term limit, the ANC is unlikely to lose control of the presidency. With a poor showing in the municipal elections, however, the situation for the ANC may become more complicated as jockeying to succeed Zuma intensifies. Divisions within the party could widen, dividing it along ethnic lines or over attitudes toward business, among other issues.

At the national level, the ANC — the party of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and others who led the decadeslong struggle to overcome apartheid — continues to enjoy mainstream black South African voter support. This is partly because of history and partly thanks to its record of delivering social services to its impoverished constituency. Though the ANC may not deliver its services efficiently, the houses, water and jobs it has provided leave a tangible legacy for voters.

Nevertheless, the EFF's growing strength in Limpopo could be a long-term threat to the ANC. The ruling party's power previously rested on uniting the country's labor unions under the Congress of South African Trade Unions to mobilize key support bases from its critical mining constituency. But the emerging breakdown of this dynamic, combined with continuing weak demand for South Africa's minerals, has given the EFF a recruiting advantage: It can blame the ANC for the mining sector's woes.

South Africa's municipal elections may prove uncomfortable for the beleaguered ANC and a potential boon to the opposition. Whatever the results, the ANC will face stiffer competition in the years ahead.

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