How Nelson Mandela Bay may be the ANC's mini Waterloo

BY JOLEEN STEYN KOTZE - APRIL 20, 2016

One-party dominant systems, global experiences have shown, eventually fall into a crisis of legitimacy. This often stems from a perception of ineffective governance and lack of delivery on promises made to the electorate.

Dominant parties, like South Africa’s governing African National Congress (ANC), rely on two factors to maintain dominance. First, they need a protected core of voters that opposition parties find difficult to penetrate and win over.

Second, they must maintain a perception of effectiveness within this protected core of voters. If not, support declines and this may even result in a change of government. Examples include the experience of the PRI in Mexico.

Losing legitimacy is usually a slow process. It normally starts at a local level and then progresses to national level.

On top of this, dominant parties eventually succumb to the pressures of factionalism, patronage and corruption that open the political space for opposition parties to maximise their gains and potentially take power.

These dynamics are, to a large degree, playing out in Nelson Mandela Bay in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. For a number of years governance in the city could best be described as weak. Factional battles, patronage and allegations of corruption with little or no action taken have culminated in the delivery of basic services coming to a standstill. And a dramatic decline in voter support.

Why Nelson Mandela Bay is significant

Increasingly questions are being raised about whether the ANC is showing signs of losing its legitimacy. The governing party’s recent launch of its manifesto in Nelson Mandela Bay ahead of local elections in August has raised the tempo. This is because it has increased speculation that the ANC will lose power in the city, making it only the second major metropolitan district – Cape Town being the other – outside the governing party’s control.

The party has seen its electoral support decline in the area. In the 2014 general elections the ANC got only 49% of the local vote. Nationally it won 62%.

This represents the second-lowest electoral support for the ANC after Cape Town, which is governed by the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA).

Nelson Mandela Bay also carries a great deal of symbolism. It has a rich history of liberation heroes and legends who were born in the Eastern Cape and worked in the city. Also, one has to appreciate the use of Nelson Mandela’s legacy in renaming the city, which was previously called Port Elizabeth.

Losing a large municipality with the name of one of the ANC’s iconic leaders would be a symbolic blow. This in turn could cement perceptions at a national level that if the ANC cannot maintain support in its heartland, it may indeed be falling.

Factors driving disaffection

The ANC’s key messages have focused on liberation, of bringing freedom and democracy, of creating a better life for all. But communities at local level seem to have more immediate concerns. Many have increasingly begun responding to the ANC’s failure to deliver basic services through destructive protests, many of which have turned violent.

It is at the local level that the ANC seems to be slipping. Local municipalities are characterised by a lack of accountability, under-spending, maladministration, patronage and anorexic delivery of water, housing and electricity. This may create the opening for the opposition to become a challenger to the party’s once-comfortable electoral majority.

The low attendance at the ANC’s manifesto launch demonstrates that the party no longer holds much weight with the electorate in Nelson Mandela Bay. It would seem that support for the ANC is no longer that of unconditional trust. Rather, it is based on whether the dream of 1994 has materialised.

The promises of water, electricity, housing and other basic services remain a luxury for the marginalised in the municipality’s townships. For the poor this has meant a lack of delivery in housing and sanitation, including the continued use of what is known as the bucket system. In the absence of toilets, people have to use buckets.

Ordinary people no longer feel they are a priority for the ANC. They have taken to the streets, dramatically bringing the city to a standstill during bitter factional battles. By 2012, the level of protests, particularly in Nelson Mandela Bay, had escalated to such a degree that the Eastern Cape was dubbed the “protest-ridden province”.

There are other particular political dynamics at play in Nelson Mandela Bay. The motor industry is big, and includes Volkswagen and General Motors. Most unionised workers belong to the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), a union caught in contentious politics with the umbrella trade union body, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu). Cosatu is part of the ruling tripartite alliance with the ANC and South African Communist Party. Numsa split from Cosatu last year and is highly critical of the ANC. The union may rally behind one of the other parties, or workers may vote with their feet and stay away from the polls.

What is clear is that the ANC can no longer rely on the sentimental vote.

Opposition parties step into the breach

Within this context a space for opposition parties opens. The main contender in Nelson Mandela Bay is the country’s second biggest party, the DA.

But former ANC voters may not necessarily trust the DA. This much was evident in the landmark victory of the United Democratic Movement, a small party with a stronghold in the Eastern Cape, which managed to secure victory over the ANC in a hotly contested by-election in 2015. Other smaller parties may also become more important role players.

It is impossible to predict the outcome of the election. But the signs are clear that the ANC is going to have to work hard to win back the trust of voters. This would mean the party dealing with difficult issues, most notably President Jacob Zuma’s loss of legitimacy as a leader. The disconnect between the political narrative and the political sentiment of people may well see the ANC bleed in the coming election.

The Conversation

Joleen Steyn Kotze, Associate Professor of Political Science, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article. Image: Supporters of South Africa’s ruling ANC cheer at a rally to launch the party’s 2016 local government elections manifesto in Nelson Mandela Bay.Reuters/Mike Hutchings