Municipal ballots in sub-Saharan Africa don’t typically draw too much international attention but this year’s regional elections in South Africa are an exception. Long queues formed outside polling stations across the country yesterday as voters decide who will run the country’s towns and cities. But why the worldwide interest? Because this year’s vote marks the most serious test to date for the ruling African National Congress (ANC), which has governed South Africa since Nelson Mandela took office in 1994.
The election is in part a referendum on president Cyril Ramaphosa but many of the issues are more fundamentally about the ANC’s leadership. Unemployment, corruption and the lack of basic services are at the forefront of many voters’ minds as the country faces a record unemployment rate of more than 30 per cent. The ANC itself faces mounting criticism over its failure to resolve decades of local mismanagement.
Loyalty to the ANC has waned in recent years as the party has grappled with competing internal factions, including tensions between those loyal to jailed former president Jacob Zuma and pro-Ramaphosa supporters who believe that internal reform is key to regaining public support. Previous municipal elections have resulted in the ANC losing control of key strongholds, including Johannesburg, the Tshwane metropolitan area and Nelson Mandela Bay.
If the ANC wins less than half the overall vote for the first time in its history in this week’s poll, many would have to consider the previously unthinkable possibility that the party of Mandela could soon be in opposition. But realising that there are electoral consequences for its failure to lead might be the long overdue wake-up call that the ANC needs.