DA puts a shot across the ANC’s bows

2011-05-21 00:00

IN spite of claiming celebrity endorsements from Jesus Christ and the tribal ancestors, the ruling African National Congress took a klap from city dwellers in this week's local government elections.

Yet, while a significant number of its voters stayed away compared with the national elections of two years ago, there is some perverse solace for the ANC in this. Since these voters appear to be merely sulking in hibernation rather than actually trekking to pastures new, they can more readily be wooed back.

The big winner was the Democratic Alliance, despite its failure to win control of any additional metropolitan councils.

It took one in four votes — almost 50% more than the 17% who voted for it in the 2009 general election, and over two-thirds more than its 15% in the 2006 municipal elections.

Importantly, at least two out of three of those who voted DA are black, scotching the cynical mantra that South Africa will always be confined in a template of racial nationalism.

The demographic arithmetic is simple — even if every single white, coloured and Indian voter turned out for the DA, a fifth of the DA vote, more than 600 000 people, must have been black Africans.

The DA came to within a single ward of winning the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro in the Eastern Cape, heartland of the ANC.

It retained control of Midvaal with an increased majority, in the face of an ANC onslaught that in the final week included Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe and youth leader Julius Malema.

If one removes the clutter of vanity parties that were contesting the elections, the electoral divide was stark: some eight million people who voted ANC on one side, and 3,2 million people who voted DA on the other.

It is a divide also between a rural South Africa that is unquestioningly loyal to the ANC, and an urban South Africa where the trendsetting, educated and relatively prosperous black African urban elite are for the first time beginning to show doubts.

There is now not a single metro that the ANC can view as unassailable. Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban and, of course, Port Elizabeth, are all now vulnerable, especially if the trend towards the opposition is accompanied by another ANC voter stayaway.

The power of efficient, clean government to sway voters can be seen in the Cape Town Metro. In 2006, the DA got 43% of the vote and squeaked into power with a creaky seven-party coalition. This time round, it cruised home with a massive majority.

What should worry the ANC is the speed of its reversal. In the 2009 national elections, more than 11,5 million voters delivered it 66% of the vote. Just two years later, this number has dropped on a lower turnout of eight million to some 62%.

The DA, in comparison, boosted its numbers by an extra quarter of a million votes and its share by nine percentage points.

The DA's new black voters appear to have come largely not from the ANC but from Cope, which dropped to barely two percent, from over seven percent in the last national vote (it was not around for the 2006 municipal election).

This virtual obliteration was the price of the bitter Tweedledum-Tweedledee battle between Mbhazima Shilowa and Mosiuoa Lekota.

Whatever the DA breakthroughs, this is by no means the tipping point that is being punted by some analysts.

The ANC has formidable systemic advantages, especially in national and provincial elections, with a proportional-vote system that blunts local voter accountability in favour of the party bosses.

It is, however, the first post-democracy election in which there has been a real contestation for power.

The fright might just encourage the ANC to up its standard of governance.

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