If the turnout at the Rustenburg launch of the African National Congress (ANC) local government election manifesto at the end of February is anything to go by, we are heading for a low voter turnout in the upcoming local government elections.
As we drove out of the stadium, we saw small groups of protesters carrying placards with unsavoury messages about corruption and looting. These protesters were ANC members from local branches of the ruling party in the North West who are clearly unimpressed with the performance of ANC councillors in that province.
Were it not for the small children and teenagers who had gone to the rally to watch the performances of famous kwaito stars and disc jockeys, the attendance would have been more dismal than the 50% that bothered to listen to ANC president Jacob Zuma.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, there are two things worth noting. First, there is a need to differentiate between conditions in the North West and other provinces in the country. Second, political commentators predicted that the ANC would lose ground in the 2006 polls because, for 20 months prior to those elections, poor communities had engaged in service delivery protests. In other words, it was assumed that ANC voters would desert the ruling party. Instead, the ANC improved on its 2000 local government elections performance. This means that there was a disjuncture between voting patterns and the level of unhappiness among ANC supporters.
Despite the service delivery protests of the past two years, I expect the ANC to perform better than the anger and frustration of poor communities suggest. However, I do think that ANC supporters will desert the ruling party but not in the manner desired by opposition parties. The likelihood is that ANC supporters will vote for their couches and big-screen TV sets instead of punishing the ruling party by voting for opposition parties. I am afraid that the implosion of the Congress of the People (Cope) is partly to blame for this. Since about 1,3-million voters gave the nod to Cope in the 2009 general election, there was hope that this year’s election would be more competitive than the 2000 and 2006 local government elections.
Given the fact that smaller opposition parties were almost decimated in the 2009 elections, it seems the implosion of Cope is going to cause damage not only to the party itself but also to the idea of effective opposition, in general.
What do voters do when they lose faith in both the ruling and opposition parties? They simply stay at home, and when a low voter turnout is generalised, it is the ruling party that benefits. The challenge facing opposition parties, especially the Democratic Alliance-Independent Democrats (DA-ID) coalition, is to prevent a low turnout within its support base. The ANC, on the other hand, is faced with a challenge it will have to confront after the elections.
While we should expect stiff competition in parts of the Western Cape, the ANC is unlikely to lose much ground in other parts of the country. The challenge facing the ANC is the gap between power and credibility. While the ruling party has scored impressively on every key delivery indicator after 1996, most of what has been achieved occurred in the early periods of democracy.
Deficits in the pace, scope and quality of delivery are responsible for the wave of service delivery protests since 2006. While the ANC government has done well in the extension of water, sanitation, electricity and housing to poor households, poverty, unemployment and growing inequalities remain intractable problems. It is for this reason that job creation was the dominant theme in the State of the Nation address, the Budget and the ANC election manifesto.
Besides promising the creation of five-million jobs in ten years, the ruling party, in its manifesto, promises to deliver 4,5-million job opportunities through its Expanded Public Works Programme. The manifesto also promises the building of 400 000 houses over the next five years and 80 000 housing units for mixed-income communities. The plan is to coordinate the planning function between the three tiers of government and empower local government to play a more direct role in the provision of housing, as well as foreground job creation in the integrated development plans of local government.
Where will all this capacity come from? According to the ANC manifesto, it will, in part, come from the filling of public-service posts throughout government. It is not clear how the ANC government will marry State capacity, implementation and outcomes to give effect to the imperative of enhancing the quantitative and qualitative dimensions of delivery. To the extent that the ANC has become sensitive to its crisis of credibility, it must bridge the gap between its awareness of the problems and effective service delivery.