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Shambolic state of towns and distrust of bigger parties help new entrants in watershed local elections
The elections in South Africa's 278 municipalities on 1 November are a 'now or never moment' for the ruling African National Congress (ANC) to win back the confidence of the people, President Cyril Ramaphosa told closing campaign rallies. For Ramaphosa, who is now more popular than his party, it's a personal battle to revive the ANC after a decade of political and economic freefall.
That was why Ramaphosa stayed away from the opening of the UN COP26 Climate summit in Glasgow, also on 1 November. South Africa's delegation is to take a leading role in pushing Africa's agenda on a 'just energy transition' and climate finance at COP26.
The latest opinion polls show little chance that Ramaphosa can turn around the fall in support for the ANC. At best he may be able to stop the decline.
Former President Kgalema Motlanthe, in charge of candidate selection for the ANC, has struggled to find strong and honest contenders. An ANC veteran told Africa Confidential that the state, particularly at local level, has been criminalised. Fixing that could take a decade, he added.
Voter support for the ANC under former President Jacob Zuma's leadership plummeted to 54% in the 2016 local elections. After taking the helm in 2018, Ramaphosa was able to nudge the ANC's vote share up to 57% in the national elections in 2019.
In the local elections these numbers won't translate into power shifts on the ground. The ANC is unlikely to regain control of any of the metropolitan areas such as Johannesburg, Tshwane (Pretoria) and Nelson Mandela Bay that it lost in 2016. Those are likely to remain under the control of party coalitions, weakened by infighting and poor coordination.
A poll by national news organisation Media24 put ANC support in the local elections at 52-56%, with the centre-right Democratic Alliance (DA), the biggest opposition party, at 19-23%, and the radical Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) on 10-14%.
But the ANC fared much worse in a poll released on 31 October by private broadcaster eNCA and independent market research company IPSOS which put the ANC share of the vote nationally at 43.4%, its lowest since the first democratic election of 1994.
IPSOS more or less agrees with the Media24 poll on the fate of the two main opposition parties. It reckons that the DA's support will fall to 24%, down from 26.9% in the 2016 local elections, and that the EFF share will grow to 14.9% from 8.2%.
If the ANC vote falls as low as the IPSOS poll suggests, the main beneficiaries would be the mini-parties and the independent candidates. That could signal a new trend, at least at local level; 325 parties are contesting and the number of independent candidates has doubled to 1,546.
Names to watch include former leader of the DA, Mmusi Maimane, who has launched a new platform called the One SA Movement which is putting up 300 of the independents. Another former DA member, former Mayor of Johannesburg Herman Mashaba, last year launched Action SA which is putting up candidates on a nationalist and pro-capitalist platform.
Gayton McKenzie, a former gangster convicted of bank robbery, is leading the Patriotic Alliance on a similar nationalist platform to Mashaba's. McKenzie argues that his background in gangsterism in the Western Cape equips him to stem the rising crime rate.
Results for the local elections are set to take three to four days to come through and there are concerns that some parties could dispute them. EFF leader Julius Malema has already questioned some of pandemic restrictions on campaigning.
There are intense rivalries for local political jobs within and between parties. More than 10 candidates have been killed during campaigning. The government says it is assigning 10,000 extra police for duty on election day and the aftermath.
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