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Local government matters: the ‘toilet elections’ in South Africa

7 June 2011

Carole Rakodi is Emeritus Professor in the International Development Department and is currently attached to the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town as an academic mentor under a mentoring programme funded by the Mellon Foundation.

Local government elections are notorious for low voter turnout, but the turnout for last month’s elections in South Africa was a record 58% of the 24 million registered voters.  This was attributed to an exciting election campaign and tight contests expected in key municipal areas. Campaigning went on for weeks and received extensive coverage in the media. The elections were efficiently run by the Independent Electoral Commission, with plenty of independent civil society monitoring, and few allegations of intimidation, violence or malpractice. Is it coincidental, one commentator mused, that the IEC is run at a senior level by women?

In South Africa, local government matters, and not just because it provides a pointer to what might happen in the provincial and national elections due in 2014.

Municipal Elections 2011 ballot, Cape Town

Photo credit: Warren Rohner

Why do local government elections matter? South Africans have high expectations of government: they know the country has substantial resources, they have seen significant investment in major infrastructure (for example stadiums and roads for the World Cup, as well as roads, electricity and water in the urban areas in which 61% live), and politicians promise that the government will deliver economic development, jobs and improved living conditions. Tremendous progress has been made since 1994:  millions of new houses have been built (the number of households living in brick houses almost doubled from 5.6 million in 1996 to 10.4 million in 2009), the number of households with piped water increased from 7.4 million in 2003 to 11 million in 2009 and the proportion with access to electricity increased from 36% in 1994 to 84% today.

The ‘toilet elections’

So why the toilet elections? Campaigning was enlivened by two news stories, which reveal much about political discourse and practice in South Africa. The Democratic Alliance (DA), which controls the city of Cape Town and is the main rival of the African National Congress (ANC) at the national level, campaigned on a platform of efficient and effective service delivery, including providing waterborne sewerage in low income housing areas. In December 2009, however, the DA was taken to court by the ANC Youth League for failing to construct the superstructure (four walls and a roof) above 1,316 toilets that had been installed in Makhaza, part of Khayelitsha. The Western Cape High Court ruled that the city council was violating the residents’ constitutional right to dignity and its own duty to provide for the basic needs of the poor. The story was splashed all over the media by the ANC, only for an identical example to be unearthed in a poorly performing ANC-run municipality, Moqhaka in the Free State, where 1,620 toilets built as far back as 2003 had never been enclosed.  The pictures of unused toilets sitting in the middle of residential plots appealed to the media (and was a gift to cartoonists), but the issue also emblematic of the wider issues at stake in the local government elections.

Service delivery

The elections were fought on the platform of service delivery: although all three levels of government share responsibility for infrastructure, municipalities (both urban and rural) are responsible for water and sanitation, electricity, waste management and road maintenance, among other functions. In practical terms, South Africans interpret their constitutional rights to dignity and respect in terms of a right to decent housing and services, amongst other things.

However, despite the progress made since 1994, levels of dissatisfaction with services and with local government are high. A recent IDASA (Institute for Democracy in South Africa) citizen satisfaction survey revealed very high levels of dissatisfaction, with poor municipal performance blamed on corruption, nepotism, poor management, and failure to listen to residents or keep them informed. The State of the Cities report released in April noted that local government is one of the least trusted public institutions: it is considered to be remote, unresponsive, poorly managed, and riddled with internal political party factionalism.

The seven metros are better at providing services, but are struggling to manage rapid urban growth and the legacy of apartheid spatial planning. They have experienced the most service delivery protests (111 in 2010, 23 so far in 2011, some of which have turned violent). Corruption in local government (in the allocation of houses, award of tenders and so on) is widely condemned and disillusionment widespread, with some CSOs urging voters to boycott the elections and some ANC members and supporters abstaining. Nevertheless, many believe both that the government has the capacity to deliver and that they can hold it to account, which led them to turn out at the polls in record numbers.

Love Your South Africa

Photo credit: Craig Strachan

Political trends

What the elections indicate about changes in the party political terrain in South Africa is also important. The voting system for municipalities (single tier metros and double tier local and district councils elsewhere) is a mixture of first-past-the-post and a party list PR system. The ANC, which controls the national and eight of the nine provincial governments, continues to control 7 of the 8 metropolitan and 198 municipal councils, and gained 64% of the votes, so on the surface little has changed. However, stories about infighting over the selection of candidates and management of the campaign circulated widely in the run-up to the election and the party’s share of the total votes cast fell from 66% in the previous local government elections. Some observers suggest that increasing numbers of South Africans (especially younger ones) believe not only that the party’s long term stranglehold on power has led to complacency, factionalism and abuse of office, but also that there might be an alternative.

Previous challengers, such as Buthelezei’s Inkatha Freedom Party and Congress of the People, the ANC break-away party, have almost disappeared, with none securing more than 4% of the votes, although several hold the balance of power in hung councils. Instead, the National Freedom Party, a breakaway from the IFP (which had 8% of the votes nationally in 2006 and outright control of 33 councils, mainly in KwaZulu Natal – it retains control of just 5) gained almost as many votes as the IFP itself, while some former ANC members stood as independents and some won seats as ward councillors.

The main challenger to the ANC is the DA, previously seen as the party of whites, coloureds and Indians (21% of the population) with significant support only in the Western Cape. Led by Helen Zille, mayor of Cape Town between 2006 and 2009 and Premier of the Western Cape Province since 2009, it estimated that it took only 2% of the African vote in 2009. Since Zille became its leader in 2007, it has campaigned on the strength of its service delivery record in the areas under its control (especially Western Cape and the Cape Town metro) and actively sought to increase its share of the black vote in areas where it perceived the ANC to be vulnerable. In the 18th May elections, it increased its share of the votes from 15% in 2006 (with outright control of 7 councils) to 24% (outright control of 18 municipal councils), won an outright majority in Cape Town (up from 43% in 2006 to 61%, and estimated that it had increased its share of African voters – although only to a miniscule 5%.

The debate in the run-up to the 2014 national and provincial elections is thus likely to focus, amongst other things, on whether the May 2011 local government elections indicate a shift from ‘struggle politics’ (in which voters support the ANC out of loyalty for its past achievements) to a focus on delivery, whether the ANC is capable of responding to the warning signs by addressing its internal problems and improving governance, and whether politics in South Africa has become a two-horse race.

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