THE significant loss of votes by the African National Congress (ANC) among urban middle-class voters had put its control of three large metros — Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay — under threat in the upcoming local government elections.
It had also created a more receptive political space in which communities could mobilise to have their demands met, political commentators said on Friday.
Increased competition between political parties ahead of the 2016 local government elections created a favourable environment for social mobilisation, political analysts Steven Friedman and Zackie Achmat said at a post-election conference organised by the Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office and the German Hanns Seidel Foundation.
Mr Friedman warned that despite the ANC’s strong victory — albeit with a lower percentage of the vote — there was no room for the ruling party to become complacent as it faced a number of threats.
Key among these was the decline in its share of the urban vote, which threatened to consign it to being a party of mainly rural voters.
The ANC has suffered sharp declines in its share of the vote in Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay and is in danger of losing exclusive control of these metros in 2016 if current trends persist.
It will then have to govern in coalitions with other parties.
Mr Friedman said the ANC’s electoral setback had created a real opportunity for communities in major cities who were concerned about social justice to bring about change as there was a greater likelihood that they would be taken seriously. However, they would have to take the initiative.
He said increased competition made political parties more responsive to popular demands and created the space for the poor to make gains.
“The big story of this election from the ANC’s perspective is that there is a real prospect that the ANC is in danger of becoming a primarily rural party,” Mr Friedman warned, even though this would not threaten its majority on the national level.
“What the ANC really has to worry about now is the middle class,” he said, adding that the urban middle class was in “some sort of revolt against it”.
The ANC is in an irreversible decline, but this will not occur by way of a meltdown (as is widely predicted) but rather slowly over the next 20 years, unless it splits apart first, he said.
According to Mr Friedman, such a split could occur if the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa succeeds with its plans to create a socialist political party and if it manages to win the support of the people who did not register to vote and did not participate in the electoral process.
He said if the nonparticipants were included in the calculations, the ANC only won the support of 36% of the eligible voting population during the election and 45% of registered voters, even though it won 63% of those who cast their votes.
The poor and unemployed either voted for the ANC or did not vote.
“What happens inside the ANC is more important than its relation to the electorate,” he said. “Despite a fairly clear run for the ANC in the elections there are some very real tensions in the system and those tensions could have important consequences for what is going on.”
Factionalism inside the party over the question of the successor to President Jacob Zuma was another source of tension.
The election results could also signal to the ANC the need to deal with South Africa’s unsustainable levels of inequality and poverty and to think seriously about negotiations over the unequal distribution of wealth in society.
Mr Friedman suggested that the fact that there was so much talk about the need for economic change without any concrete proposals being put forward to achieve it indicated that there was an awareness of the need for negotiation. He was “fairly optimistic” that this could take place in the years ahead.
He said the economic section of the ANC’s election manifesto demonstrated that it was in “a bargaining frame of mind” as it dealt with issues such as a minimum wage, financial sector regulation, black economic empowerment and the spatial configuration of cities, while offering business the possibility of deregulation, a more business-friendly environment, private-public partnerships on infrastructure and incentives to create work and invest in development.
Mr Achmat, a director of the social justice organisation Ndifuna Ukwazi, highlighted the fact that large numbers of working class and poor people did not vote because they did not believe doing so would achieve anything.
He described the ANC as an “unsavoury institution” and urged activists to build a bridge for people to leave it. The 2016 local government elections created the opportunity for social mobilisation and would give communities “enormous power” to make radical demands.
“The creation of a civil society movement along the lines of the United Democratic Movement is on the agenda,” he said.
With regard to the Democratic Alliance (DA), both speakers agreed that it had not made significant inroads into the ANC vote and this should be a source of concern for the party as its ability to gain from other opposition parties is not inexhaustible.
The ANC has haemorrhaged middle class voters to the Economic Freedom Fighters rather than to the DA and the black voters that the DA did win over came from the Congress of the People.