It seems trite and cliched to call elections ‘crucial’ or ‘historic’. We seem to decorate every election with some hyperbolic adjective.
The 1994 poll was historic because it ushered in democracy; 1995 gave us democratic local government; 1999 was the end of the Mandela era; 2000 the first time elections were held for wall-to-wall municipalities. And so on and so on.
The hyperbole was justified in the 2009 and 2014 elections, when breakaways from the governing ANC started to eat away its commanding hegemony.
Today’s local government elections also warrant this description because it is the first time that opposition optimism and governing party panic are justified. The sea change in South Africa’s politics since the 2014 general election has been dramatic.
The outcome of today’s poll will be fundamental because it not only holds the potential for change of power in some municipalities, but it is seen as a dress rehearsal for the 2019 general election.
If you thought apartheid was dead, think again. The spectre of this evil system loomed large these elections.
The ANC reminded us over and over again that apartheid could make a comeback in the same way that eradicated diseases like smallpox and rinderpest could still return.
Leading this charge of putting the fear of the return of apartheid into our hearts was none other than President Jacob Zuma himself, who told us that the DA was the party of PW Botha.
Senior ANC leaders joined in the song. As election day drew closer and the desperation stakes rose, they told South Africans that if the DA achieved power, it would reverse the gains made since 1994 and virtually restore white rule.
Who would have thought that estate agents would have such a profound effect on our elections? Estate agents Penny Sparrow and Vicki Momberg were at the forefront of an army of racists who defined 2016 as the year of overt racism.
The outbursts by Sparrow, who happened to be a DA member at the time, was manna for the ANC in election year.
The ANC’s spin machine – particularly on social media – went into overdrive with members taunting Mmusi Maimane about the company he was keeping.
With the tone having been set by the Sparrow saga, every racist incident – and some that were not – was opportunistically seized upon by the ANC to flaunt the apartheid-could-return narrative.
If the racist incidents were a blessing to the ANC, the Nkandla matter was gold for the opposition.
Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) had since 2014 used the controversy around the R246 million in upgrades to Zuma’s residential compound as a tangible rallying point about corruption.
Other opposition parties followed suit. The DA, which had championed the cause to hold Zuma to account in the pre-2014 Parliament, had to play catch-up and ensure that this lightning-rod issue did not become the property of the start-up EFF.
The ANC had put itself on the back foot by unconditionally defending Zuma. This made it easy for its opponents to project it as a corrupt party headed by a corrupt leader.
In an election year, this was invaluable for the ANC’s opponents, especially in literate urban communities.
It is Nkandla and all its subtexts about corruption that could unseat the ANC in the battleground municipalities.
The president was the gift that kept on giving for the ANC’s rivals.
From the Nkandla matter and his relationship with the Guptas to his regular gaffes, he provided ammunition for anyone who wanted to attack the ANC.
His popularity rating plummeted. Feelings that he was a liability were so strong, it was motivated that his image be minimised on ANC campaign material.
Others characterised the elections as a referendum on Zuma’s leadership and argued that a significant decline in the ANC’s fortunes should result in his removal and the convening of an early party electoral conference.
But Zuma loyalists have fought off any efforts to undermine him.
They have beaten off his detractors and indirectly warned the rebellious Gauteng provincial executive that it would be their political lives on the line should the ANC perform badly in the province’s big metros.
So instead of Zuma carrying the blame for turning off voters, Paul Mashatile’s provincial executive committee could find itself on the carpet.
The DA leader has grown in leaps and bounds since the 2011 local government elections, when he unconvincingly ran for the mayorship of Johannesburg, and in 2014 when he contested the Gauteng premiership.
From being seen as Helen Zille’s poodle back then, he has developed his authority inside the DA ranks. He has brushed off attempts to characterise him as a puppet of the DA’s white old guard.
In return, he has thrown the book back and accused his detractors of having an inferiority complex that says blacks cannot lead whites.
Still, Maimane’s oratorial style on the campaign trail has sounded a bit manufactured with a tinge of high school debating society influences.
He has also struggled to emerge from the shadow of Malema, whose party makes no pretence when it comes to civility and therefore hogs the public’s attention.
Sections of the party who are still doubtful about his leadership are waiting in ambush.
Should the DA not show that it has broken its ceiling, there will be calls for a stronger leader to mount a stronger fight against the ANC in 2019, when the governing party will be even more vulnerable.
He needs some really good runs on the board.
Malema and his members have bragged that in 2014, their month-old party got a 6% slice of the minuscule resources. The party now has proper structures and a strong public profile.
It also has access to money, albeit nowhere near the largesse enjoyed by the ANC and the DA.
So there will be no room for excuses if the EFF doesn’t bite off bigger chunks of the vote in large and small municipalities.
The figure of Malema still looms large over the EFF.
Many voters who will turn to the party will do so because of his rock-star presence rather than the pie-in-the-sky promises his manifesto contains.
He has cleverly positioned himself as Zuma’s direct rival, the corruption buster who is policing the tainted president.
So strongly has he played this card, that his own past indiscretions are long forgotten.
For the first time in the life of democratic South Africa, questions have been raised about freeness and fairness.
Most of these questions have been unfair and irresponsible as the potential of election rigging in South Africa’s sophisticated yet highly transparent electoral machinery are minuscule and would easily be exposed.
But the highly professional Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has also invited the doubting through some spectacular own goals.
The behaviour of the previously unimpeachable former chairperson Pansy Tlakula opened the door to the questioning.
The IEC’s stubborn reaction to the Tlokwe debacle made matters worse.
It made it possible for opposition politicians and independents to make pre-emptive noises about the possibility of rigging so that a poor result could be explained in that way.