South Africa’s Watershed Elections: Awry, the Beloved Country?

In post apartheid South Africa, municipal elections have had a brief and unremarkable history. However, it is expected that the polls on 3 August are to be the most fiercely contested of any to date. South Africa’s demography is changing rapidly and with it the political landscape. The eight largest city councils – known as metropolitan municipalities, or “metros” – are home to some 40% of the population, where the share of the vote held by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) is in decline. Amid the clamour for votes, ANC infighting and heated rhetoric, little attention has been paid to the state of the country’s municipalities. Equivalent to 8% of GDP, local governments are responsible for R250 billion of expenditure a year. Their impact on the daily lives of most citizens is far greater than that of the national administration. The ANC may well lose control of one or more the seven metros it holds. In the absence of a clear winner, coalitions may be required to govern four of them. Yet, in pursuit of radically different electoral constituencies, the country’s three main political parties have adopted seemingly incompatible approaches to governance. This Briefing Note examines the backdrop to an election that is likely to be a watershed in South Africa’s democratic development.