With swathes of urban voters in South Africa deserting the African National Congress because of anger over a lack of jobs, shoddy services and scandals surrounding President Jacob Zuma, the ruling party is counting more than ever on support in the rural areas to maintain its grip on power.
Following municipal elections on Aug. 3, the ANC now has an absolute majority in just three of the eight main metropolitan areas, down from seven in 2011. It won 54.5 percent of the popular vote, it worst-ever showing, and lost its majority in the capital, Pretoria, the industrial hubs of Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni, and the southern port city of Port Elizabeth. The 104-year-old party continues to dominate the 205 smaller councils, controlling 158 outright.
“The ANC now finds itself holding onto small towns and rural areas, where many residents depend on government services and grants,” said Somadoda Fikeni, a politics professor at the University of South Africa in Pretoria. “The middle class and workers in the factories are not so dependent on the state.”
Shifting voter patterns have already changed power dynamics within the ANC itself. The party’s loss of urban support has coincided with the rise in the fortunes of a bloc known as the Premier League led by the premiers of the largely rural Mpumalanga, Free State and North West provinces who support Zuma, 74.
The leaders of the Premier League are likely to be cheered by the latest election results, which demonstrated the party’s increasing reliance on their constituency, and to gain sway over who succeeds Zuma as party leader when his current term ends late next year.
“The ANC has done well in the largely rural provinces where the Premier League is strong,” Imraan Buccus, senior research associate at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute, said in an opinion piece in Johannesburg’s Sunday Times. “If this weakens the forces within the ANC that are opposed to corruption and patronage and which have a modern and democratic vision, it would be unfortunate.”
For a Quicktake explainer on why the ANC lost voter support, click here
The change may also have a bearing on national policy, and there’s a risk of the party pursuing a more populist agenda to appease rural communities, said Robert Besselling, executive director of risk advisers EXX Africa. Measures could include moving forward on proposals to restrict foreign ownership of agricultural land and more forceful land redistribution policies that do away with the willing-seller and willing-buyer model, he said.
Zuma, a Zulu traditionalist who sometimes appears at rallies dressed in leopard skins and has four wives and at least 20 children, has played a leading role in alienating the ANC’s urban supporters. He’s been implicated in a series of corruption scandals and faced demands to quit since the nation’s top court found he violated the constitution by refusing to pay bay taxpayer money spent on upgrading his rural home.
The winners in the election were the Democratic Alliance, whose share of the national vote rose to 27 percent from 22.2 in 2014 and is now the biggest party in three cities, and the Economic Freedom Fighters, which won 8.2 percent support, up from 6.3 percent
“What we are seeing is a continuation of this incremental loss of support for the ANC in the cities, whilst the rural areas hold up substantially better,” said Daniel Silke, director of the Political Futures Consultancy in Cape Town.
For a table on the election results, click here
The trend in South Africa mirrors what happened in neighboring Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front dominated the national stage upon taking power after independence in 1980 and since 2000 has had to rely on support from the rural areas as city dwellers began voting for the opposition.
“All the so-called liberation movements start by losing the urban centers,” said Dali Mpofu, a prominent lawyer and former ANC activist, who broke away from the ruling party to co-found the EFF.
About 65 percent of South Africa’s population is urbanized, World Bank data shows, and the United Nations projects this proportion will grow to 80 percent by 2050.
Urbanization creates a “relentless problem” for the ANC, because the preferences of voters who would otherwise have stuck with the party will probably change along with their lifestyles and economic circumstances, said Susan Booysen, a politics professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
“Unless the ANC finds a way to capture ideologically the urban population in a spectacular fashion, it is not going to reverse the trend of geographical migration and associated political migration,” she said.
The changing political attitudes that urbanization brings may spread to villages and smaller towns, according to Mcebisi Ndletyana, a politics professor at the University of Johannesburg.
“There is a lot of fluidity in this country between rural and urban voters,” he said by phone. “Most of us have rural connections and we go there often and tell them how bad the ANC is doing in the urban areas. Our testimonials might change sentiments in rural areas.”