THOSE who claim that elections do nothing to change lives may care to look at the way in which the government will now begin to operate in some of our major cities.
The election showed that the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) capacity to win a national majority is in no danger. But it also showed that it cannot afford to be complacent about Gauteng or its three metropolitan areas — Johannesburg, Tshwane and Ekurhuleni — where it won only between 51% and 56%. In Nelson Mandela Bay, which includes Port Elizabeth, it dropped below 50%. It’s no longer fanciful to suggest the next local elections in these areas may deprive it of a majority, forcing it into coalitions.
In most of the rest of the country, the ANC may be tempted to lapse into complacency because it remains far ahead of opposition parties. But in these areas, it can no longer take majority voter support for granted.
Logic suggests that governments in Gauteng and these metros will now take voters more seriously. And, while logic does not always predict the behaviour of politicians and governments, the evidence suggests that this is exactly what they will do.
During Thabo Mbeki’s presidency, his attitude to HIV and AIDS denied many people the antiretroviral drugs they needed to stay alive. But, in KwaZulu-Natal and Western Cape, HIV-positive people were more likely to be able to acquire the life-saving medication they needed. The reason was not primarily that whichever party happened to be in office cared more about them — it was that competition between the parties was fierce enough to persuade the province’s governing party that it needed to show voters that it cared if it wanted to stay in office.
Those who like to insist that “you can’t eat democracy”, meaning that the right to vote means little unless basic needs are met, might consider that many people’s lives were saved because they lived in a province where there was strong party competition.
The fact that parties were competing did not mean citizens could rely automatically on the government to do what they wanted it to do. Governing parties faced with the loss of power may want to meet voters’ needs but may not know what they are. Even when they know, they may face obstacles that prevent them responding. But competition did create opportunities for citizens: if they organised, the chances that they would get what they wanted were greatly increased because governing politicians needed to woo voters.
This seems likely to become a key element in the life of residents of Gauteng and its metros. But the changes fiercer competition are likely to bring will not affect all citizens equally. A party battling to hold onto its majority will not woo all voters — it will reach out to those who it thinks are open to voting for it. For the ANC, that means targeting townships and shack settlements rather than the suburbs. Not only are their residents far more likely to vote for it but their numbers make them a more attractive source of votes than suburban residents.
The election result may well change the way in which local (and provincial) government functions. For the past two decades, who gets government to listen to them in the cities has depended not on voting strength but organisation. Because suburban residents have the resources that enable them to organise, they tend to be better at getting local government to listen to them. Not only do township and shack settlement residents often lack the organisation needed to get the government to listen but, because they have been loyal ANC voters, politicians and officials have taken them for granted.
From now on, voting numbers may matter and so townships may begin to receive more attention. Citizens’ lives won’t be improved automatically, as in the HIV and AIDS case. They are more likely to benefit if they are organised. The election has opened opportunities for township residents to demand better service.
More attention for the townships may seem threatening to the suburbs. But the shift in focus may not cost them anything. At this stage what is needed is not more funding for townships that must be raised from the suburbs, it is a focus by councils on serving their residents better. It is obviously possible to look after townships better while not ignoring the suburbs. In any event, suburban residents will no doubt remain organised and governments will continue to need them.
If the quality of government for the poor does increase, this is likely to benefit all interests: it will mean less poverty, less tension and a more productive city. Because the poor depend most on government, they will gain most from improved public service. But, if they are served better, cities are also more likely to prosper.
The election may not have changed the face of our national politics. But it just may have laid the foundation for changing the way our major cities are governed.
• Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.