Voters give ANC another chance

2011-05-25 00:00

THE local government elections last week helped consolidate our democracy.

First, we had the highest voter turnout since the first elections in 1999. There was always the concern that voters, especially the poor, would stay away from the elections in protest at the unsatisfactory running of many municipalities. With high expectations engendered by a near-miraculous transition from apartheid to democracy, collapse of basic services in many areas led to disillusionment. While the high voter turnout suggests that voters are mature enough to realise that their vote is their power to change their circumstances, victorious parties may erroneously take this a sign of less discontent than was thought.

The challenge is that next time voters may really withdraw en masse from active formal politics into underground protest politics that will lead to mayhem. So, political parties that have won have a greater burden to perform much better this time. The African National Congress must shoulder the biggest burden because it controls 198 of 244 councils. If it fails, voters will wittingly or unwittingly punish it more drastically. Some will become disillusioned and vote for alternative parties to teach the ANC a lesson, while others will simply stay away from the polls, robbing the party of its support base and reducing the quality of local democracy.

This is a positive form of pressure on governing parties because to survive and grow they need to work more efficiently, be more accountable and produce some visible results towards a better life for all. Come next elections, they would not have to convince voters much as the best form of garnering support is excellent performance.

Secondly, voter patterns suggest that third-placed parties will be important power brokers in our local politics. While the mainstream media is overplaying the emergence of a two-party system, they have underestimated the significance of consolidation of power by the National Freedom Party (NFP) after barely three months in existence and the resilience of the Congress of the People in some provinces. These parties will determine the composition and programmatic work of some important councils where there are no outright winners. This will bolster the politics of coalitions, which are common in a mature democracy. Whole coalitions are generally good for inclusive politics, but when used against a leading party in a council, they may be negative.

Thirdly, two parties that performed well are led by women who have added a certain dynamism in our politics using imagination and grass-roots mobilisation. Helen Zille was the star of the last local and national elections for building a party that is challenging for power by combining her political persona, strategy and party machinery.

Kudos must go to Zanele kaMagwaza-Msibi who has demonstrated amazing political acumen by mobilising volunteers to conduct an effective door-to-door campaign in at least three provinces, making the most effective use of interactive social media and playing political hardball to penetrate no-go zones. The DA's strategy of projecting itself as a fall-back party in coastal provinces seems to have worked.

The rise of women at the helm of politics is good for our politics. The expectation is that these women will help entrench feminine dexterity, empathy and ingenuity into our politics for the good of local communities. In future, parties without women in their top leadership will not be able to compete effectively.

Fourthly, the governing ANC is under pressure to do something drastically different in the 198 councils it controls to maintain its dominance against the rise of the DA, while the DA is under pressure to live up to expectations that it will be exemplary in efficient local administration and will become more non-racial. PR and spin may help in this regard, but they will not be enough for significant growth. The ANC's cadre deployment will have to emphasise skills and merits now more than before.

Other small parties like the African Christian Democratic Party, the Inkatha Freedom Party, the United Democratic Movement and the Pan Africanist Congress have continued to decline, contributing to the development of four-party politics nationally and three-party tendencies in most provinces. The IFP is the only party that can remake itself in a reasonably short space of time. However, it will have to retire Mangosuthu Buthelezi and promote young blood in its leadership.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue. He writes in his personal capacity.

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