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South African main opposition party Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Helen Zille (2nd L) dances with supporters on May 14, 2011 during her last rally before the May 18 municipal elections at the O.R. Tambo hall in Khayelitsha on the outskirts of Cape Town. South Africa heads to the polls for local elections on May 18 in a test of how long supporters of the juggernaut African National Congress are willing to wait for the promises of 1994 to be delivered. AFP PHOTO / RODGER BOSCH (Photo credit should read RODGER BOSCH/AFP/Getty Images) (RODGER BOSCH/AFP/Getty Images)
South African main opposition party Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Helen Zille (2nd L) dances with supporters on May 14, 2011 during her last rally before the May 18 municipal elections at the O.R. Tambo hall in Khayelitsha on the outskirts of Cape Town. South Africa heads to the polls for local elections on May 18 in a test of how long supporters of the juggernaut African National Congress are willing to wait for the promises of 1994 to be delivered. AFP PHOTO / RODGER BOSCH (Photo credit should read RODGER BOSCH/AFP/Getty Images) (RODGER BOSCH/AFP/Getty Images)

Innocent Madawo

The ANC is losing where it matters Add to ...

South Africa’s ruling African National Congress called Monday for a “sober assessment” of its poor performance in last week’s local government elections.

This call may surprise many, given that the party won 62 per cent of the votes cast. Its nearest rival, the Democratic Alliance, was chosen by just 24 per cent of voters.

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On paper, the numbers show continued ANC dominance of South Africa’s political landscape. But they do not tell the real story – that the party of Nelson Mandela has been steadily declining. Meanwhile, the upstart DA is growing rapidly.

The Democratic Alliance, cobbled from the remnants of apartheid-era white liberals, made its first serious showing in the 2009 general election, when it won 16 per cent of votes cast against the ANC’s 66 per cent. This year’s, DA support was 50 per cent higher, while the ANC slipped.

This success can correctly be attributed to the political acumen of the party’s leaders, but their work has been made easy by the ineptitude of the long-ruling ANC, whose “sober assessment” should begin by addressing its leadership’s recent complacency and recklessness. The oldest political party in Africa has lost appeal to many South African voters, including some of its most ardent supporters in black townships. The party has coasted on its credentials – the party that freed South Africans from apartheid’s grip. Like ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe, Kenya’s KANU and Angola’s MPLA, the ANC has been taking its base for granted.

The downward trend began in a serious way in 2007, when factionalism led to the unceremonious ouster of Thabo Mbeki as leader and then president. That led to a split in the party and the formation of the Congress of People.

The ANC survived the breakup and still won handily in 2009. But the split, and corruption allegations against President Jacob Zuma and other party leaders, caused a voter shift that elevated the upstart DA into the main opposition column.

Significantly, the DA took its mandate seriously and improved the delivery of services in areas under its jurisdiction – particularly in the Western Cape, where party leader Helen Zille is provincial premier. The party also reached out to other racial groups using ANC tactics, such as claiming Mr. Mandela’s legacy, singing in Xhosa and dancing the toyi-toyi in black townships.

The ANC resorted to name-calling. ANC youth leader Julius Malema called Ms. Zille “the madam,” likening the DA leader to apartheid-era white women who had black servants. He called one black DA leader Ms. Zille’s “tea girl.”

Mr. Zuma said ancestral spirits would haunt black voters if they voted for the “white” DA – despite the fact that it was the ANC that merged with the National Party, the architect and perpetrator of apartheid. The National Party persecuted such anti-apartheid icons as Helen Suzman, who led the Progressive Party, a forerunner of the DA.

But the ANC went further, alienating some of its supporters among racial minorities when party spokesman Jimmy Manyi commented that there was an “oversupply” of mixed-race Coloureds in the Western Cape.

The result of such petulance was last week’s result – analysts and the ANC’s own leadership agree that although the party won going away, it actually lost where it matters: retaining and growing voter support. Coloureds and Indians supported the DA, as did a sizable number of disgruntled black voters.

With overwhelming support from South Africa’s black majority, the ANC will continue to dominate local politics, but this “sober assessment” is timely if the ruling party hopes to maintain its rainbow nation credo in future elections. It might require putting gags on the likes of Mr. Malema.

Innocent Madawo is a freelance Zimbabwean journalist.

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