South Africans have shocked the African National Congress (ANC) in local council elections by handing significant gains to the opposition, but it is clear from the low turnout in crucial areas that the outcome is less about voting for the Democratic Alliance (DA) than taking a stand against the ruling party.
With the final results still to be tallied, the DA has and looks as though it may take over in metropolitan areas including Pretoria and Johannesburg.
It seems that urban black voters in particular – and the country’s president Jacob Zuma, but distrustful of an opposition considered to represent the interests of a small and predominantly white minority – simply stayed away.
The DA is led by Mmusi Maimane, a young black man from Soweto, but it has struggled to shake off its historical ties to the apartheid system.
“Many people who are disappointed by the ANC nevertheless cannot bring themselves to vote for a party that they perceive to be dominated by white people,” said Shireen Hassim, a professor of politics at the University of the Witwatersrand.
She said voters did not trust the , which they feel is irresponsible. “In that context they stay away from the polls and let the chips fall where they may. I think this trend started in the 2014 election, which explains the lower voter turnout,” she said.
The choice to stay away was not confined to urban settings. In the town of Vuwani in Limpopo province, which saw schools burned down in anti-government protests in June, only 1,600 people out of a total of 44,000 registered voters turned out to cast their ballots.
Despite this virtual boycott, the ANC secured a win in the area, but the complaint will have registered. ANC leaders have been “taken aback by lower than expected turnouts in areas that were their traditional strongholds,” said the respected South African .
Opposition parties are bullish as the results trickle in, and voters are celebrating the opportunity to put the politicians on notice.
It is important, however, not to underestimate the ruling party. The ANC continues to have a strong historical connection to the majority of black South Africans and to hold a special place in their hearts.
Opposition parties do not benefit from the same history, nor will they necessarily be given the time, space and goodwill the ANC has enjoyed.
National elections in 2019 are still very much the ANC’s for the taking, not only in rural areas where the party’s support has remained relatively consistent, but in urban areas as well.
If the ANC acts against Zuma, who has been tainted by corruption allegations, in the coming weeks, black urban voters will almost certainly return to the fold. If not, this election shows that the goodwill will not last forever.