South Africa's 2021 local elections: worryingly low voter turnout and the sharp rise of coalitions

SOUTH AFRICA - Report 05 Nov 2021 by Iraj Abedian

South Africa held its latest local (municipal) elections on November 1, elections that have been declared “free and fair” by the Electoral Commission of South Africa, but turned out to have had one of the lowest voter participation rates of the country’s young democracy. Only 12.3 million South Africans out of 26 million registered voters cast their ballots. With many South Africans unhappy with the state of the economy, service delivery, the scourge of corruption and the overall governance failures, many opted not to cast their votes. The results proved more detrimental to the larger established parties - the African National Congress (ANC) and the Democratic Alliance (DA). Since the dawn of democracy in 1994, the country’s governing party, the ANC, has been the majority party across South African municipalities (with the exception of those in the Western Cape), but has seen its share of votes decline drastically over the years. By means of illustration, the ANC attained 64.8% of the vote in the 2006 local elections, but this had come down significantly a decade later, to 53.9% in the 2016 elections.

The 2021 results indicate that the ANC and the country’s official opposition party, the DA, lost ground in the current elections. With 100% of the vote counted, the results show that the ANC’s support has tumbled below 50%, only managing 46.0% of the total vote, while the DA’s support has also deteriorated, from 26.9% to just 21.8% nationally. The fact that the country’s second largest party also experienced a decline in support as it failed to capitalize on the ANC’s waning popularity suggests it is not generally seen as necessarily a better alternative. Overall, the much lower voter turnout suggests many South Africans saw no reason to vote as as they have become disillusioned and view the political landscape as devoid of credible alternatives. Still, the populist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the country’s third largest party, managed to grow its support to 10.4% from 8.2% in 2016. Yet the EFF did not manage to achieve success in controlling any municipality or any local government council at all. A detailed analysis of the EFF voter support suggests that the party may well have reached its potential, i.e., a maximum of 11% to 12% countrywide. Clearly, in the South African political economy configuration, populism has a limit. Yet, given the large number of “hung local councils”, the imperative of coalition government means that the EFF can play the role of “king maker” and be able to extract disproportional influence over the governance structures.

Similar to post-2016 elections, South Africa’s municipalities will once again have to construct numerous coalition governments. At the same time, the number of “hung councils”, i.e., ones that will require the formation of coalitions due to no one party's having managed to attain 50% + 1 of votes, have more than doubled from the 2016 election to the current 66. Meanwhile, coalition governments at the local level in South Africa have proven to be even less effective at governance and service delivery; most residents living under coalitions have experienced a further deterioration in service delivery. What’s more, this year’s local elections have seen the rise of smaller independent parties as they have gained in terms of the proportion of votes. As such, we expect this to add to the instability of governance. Moreover, it is also likely going to be even more challenging to put together the coalition governments as some parties are even more reluctant to work with each other following previous disastrous attempts. A case in point is the DA’s announcement that it would not be entering into any more coalition governments with the EFF.

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