SOUTH Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) looks likely to suffer what some analysts are calling “disaster” at local elections on August 3.
“Disaster” is relative here. The ANC will still win the most seats in the municipal elections, but opinion polls predict it will lose major urban areas it has held since coming to power in 1994 at the end of apartheid.
The economic hub of Johannesburg, the capital Pretoria and Nelson Mandela Bay on the east coast, could all fall to the main opposition party, Democratic Alliance, according to polls published a few days ago by Ipsos.
The ANC’s support, to take one case, looked set to slip to 31% in Johannesburg from 59% in the 2011 local elections, and in Tshwane municipality, which includes the capital Pretoria, to 23% from 55%.
The party’s reputation has been battered by corruption scandals engulfing President Jacob Zuma, high unemployment, and the government’s incompetence, making for disenchanted voters, Ipsos and other polls showed.
The ANC, which on the ground can rightly point to significant improvements it has made in Africa’s most advanced economy, including more housing and increased basic sanitation countrywide, has said its own opinion polls show it would prevail at the vote.
The losses in the big urban areas matter, because these areas were the battlegrounds of the anti-apartheid struggle, and analysts say the ANC can’t afford to be seen as a “village party” that prevails only in the rural areas, but is weak in the urban areas where the future will be shaped, and people paid a high price fighting for a democratic South Africa. It would be cast as a “party of the past”.
However, a loss for Nelson Mandela’s party, will have far-reaching and potentially positive impact beyond its borders.
It would be the first time a liberation party in Africa has suffered such reversals, which would signal that their long-running dominance – in countries like Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Algeria, Namibia – can be overcome by democratic politics, not violence, as is happening in Burundi and Mozambique.
Secondly, that it is possible to shed blood in a liberation struggle, and not consider it to be a right conferred by history to keep rigging elections to keep the party in power at whatever cost, as witnessed in Zimbabwe, Uganda, and Angola.
The humiliation of the ANC at the polls might just be what the doctor ordered for the next advance in African pluralistic democracy. The ANC would provide political moral leadership by accident, but nevertheless it would be possible to begin imaging a world where the liberators are not infallible overlords.