South Africa’s ANC struggles to stay in power in major cities

South Africa’s ruling African National Congress is facing life as an opposition party in the country’s major cities, as it struggles to forge coalition agreements with its rivals after its disastrous performance in local elections.

At stake is control of the engines of South Africa’s economy: Johannesburg, the financial centre, and the port of Durban. Parties have until November 23 to form coalitions and elect mayors in 66 hung municipalities, out of about 250 in total, or face rerunning elections in those areas.

The ANC’s support collapsed amid anger over municipal failure and corruption, with the party gaining just under half the vote for the first time since the end of apartheid in 1994. Loss of control of major cities would weaken the ANC’s hand ahead of elections in 2024, when its grip on national government will be on the line.

The main opposition, the Democratic Alliance, has ruled out joining the ANC in local coalitions. The Economic Freedom Fighters, a leftwing group that broke away from the ANC and is led by the populist Julius Malema, has tabled national policy demands in return for support at local level, including nationalisation of the central bank and changing the constitution to allow expropriating land without compensation.

While the ANC could run Durban’s municipality with just the EFF, it would need other parties to join it in Johannesburg. ActionSA, a DA breakaway, has already rebuffed an EFF overture for a three-party coalition in Gauteng, the economic hub. “You cannot fix the problem in South Africa by partnering with the ANC which is the cause of that problem,” the party said.

Faced with such demands and rebuffs, President Cyril Ramaphosa has said that “we will not enter into coalitions at any cost . . . if we must be in opposition, we will be in opposition.”

Ramaphosa “was trying to save face and look tough,” Mcebisi Ndletyana, associate professor of politics at the University of Johannesburg, said. In reality, the party is confronting “an increasingly critical electorate that is no longer swayed by sentiment, nostalgia, or memory of the anti-apartheid struggle . . . and they have found the ANC wanting.”

The ANC is vulnerable to overtures from its breakaway party, even though this year’s election results suggest that the level of national support for the EFF has been “relatively stagnant,” at about 10 per cent of the vote versus 8 per cent in 2016, Ndletyana added. “They [the EFF] think that their influence will increase if they portray themselves as the kingmaker, especially where the ANC is concerned — that they can make or break the ANC.”

The ANC can form local minority governments “which would have DA support in council for all decisions that it takes in the public interest”, John Steenhuisen, the DA leader, said last week.

Despite the ANC’s long hegemony, South Africa’s post-apartheid democracy is no stranger to power-sharing, in part because of its proportional representation system.

The ANC lost many major cities including Johannesburg for the first time in 2016 local elections. But subsequent opposition city coalitions became bywords for instability, collapsing in squabbles over who wore the mayoral chains and gained other prime jobs and contracts.

This time will not be different, Ndletyana said. With the South African economy stagnant and private sector unemployment sky-high, “you have an even more intense scramble for public sector jobs” looming over the coalition negotiations.

Whatever coalitions emerge from the ANC’s collapse will “reflect that our politics is one of patronage,” said Sithembile Mbete, a political scientist at the University of Pretoria. “That is a matter of South Africa’s political culture,” she added. “It is not a consequence of coalitions.”

After losses in 2016, the ANC also pledged to renew itself in opposition, but the party’s local politicians were soon scheming how to get back into divided councils by the back door, once they were hit by the reality of livelihoods shorn of access to municipal resources, Ndletyana said

This time around, given the tough economy, “the loss of patronage will make them even more desperate to get back into government”, Ndletyana added. “Even at the cost of introspection on what cost them their loss of support.”

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