Municipal by-elections in 15 vacant wards in eight of South Africa’s nine provinces the week before last were an inadequate national barometer of but offer some localised insights.
Voter turnouts for by-elections are generally smaller;the issues being fought over are more localised than those in general elections. However, viewed through national glasses, the municipal by-election results indicate that nothing substantial has changed. All parties retained more or less previous voter support.
The African National Congress saw the outcome as a vote of support by “a large number of voters” for its leadership and its commitment to change and transformation. But, as pointed out, essentially nothing had changed in the level of support for the ANC in the 10 out of 11 wards it retained.
Tellingly though, the only ward the ANC lost – to an independent party – was in Rustenburg near the scene of the Marikana labour unrest. This outcome perhaps told a different story to what the ANC spokesman would have us believe: Voters there do not trust the ANC after what has happened there. In last year’s local elections the ANC won the ward with 76.7% of the votes. This time round they received only 40.91% of the votes.
In Vredendal, in the Western Cape, the ANC did win a ward from the Democratic Alliance. This ward however has long been marginal, with support for the DA and ANC split down the middle. In the 2011 municipal elections the DA won the ward with 51.96% of the votes. This round the ANC won with 53.39%. The voter turnout on these two occasions differed by only 2%.
The only province to have shown relatively substantial ANC support growth was KwaZulu-Natal, where the ANC retained its four wards with higher voter percentages.
The recent audit of ANC branch membership in this province, the home province of President Jacob Zuma, showed phenomenal growth, a reflection perhaps of good organisation that may have benefited the ANC in the by-elections.
In Gauteng the DA managed to retain its three wards contested in by-elections with an 8% support growth in Mogale City, Krugersdorp. This prompted DA Gauteng leader John Moodey to claim that this was “an indication that the DA is growing across all parts of Gauteng and greater South Africa”.
What Moodey failed to mention is that the percentage voter turnout dropped from 68.2% in 2011 to 29.31% this year, which makes this comparison improbable.
Other wards were contested in the Eastern Cape, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and Northern Cape, with the ANC’s winning percentages moving marginally in either direction. Another feature of these by-elections was that, as in previous cases, the minority parties failed to make any significant impression.
Perhaps former DA parliamentary leader, Athol Trollip, was not off the mark when he said at the conclusion of last year’s municipal elections that those elections were the last for most of the smaller parties.
Since the beginning of this year there have been 70 municipal ward by-elections held in all nine provinces. Of these, the ANC retained its wards in 49 contests with largely unchanged support percentages. The exception was at Bizana in the Eastern Cape where its support was slashed from 94.33% in May last year to 55.59% in March this year despite the voter turnout having fallen by only 8%.
In September the ANC saw its support in ward 64 in Ekurhuleni drop from 90.4% to 67.2%, while support here for the DA grew from 3% to 15%. But the voter turnout also fell from 61% to 25%.
Overall, in this year’s 70 by-elections, the ANC lost one ward in Cape Town to the DA, one in Rustenburg to an independent party, and one in Polokwane to the DA. At the same time, the DA lost the Vredendal ward to the ANC. Looking at the average movement of voter support, there has been no significant growth or loss of support for the two major political parties.