In towns and villages across South Africa, roads are peppered with potholes, garbage piles up on the sidewalks and water and electricity supplies are shut off for hours – if not days – on end.
Years of neglect by local authorities may come back to haunt the ruling African National Congress, with polls indicating its share of the vote in municipal elections set for Monday may drop below 50% for the first time since it took power in 1994. The party also appears unlikely to meet its goal of regaining control of several key urban centers that it lost five years ago.
The election will serve as a litmus test of support for President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is likely to seek a second term as head of the ANC next year and then as the nation’s leader in 2024.
He’s facing an uphill battle to revive the coronavirus-battered economy and end corruption that has devastated state finances.
A survey of 1,501 people canvassed by research company Ipsos South Africa in August showed the ANC garnering 49.3% support, the main opposition Democratic Alliance 17.9% and the populist Economic Freedom Fighters 14.5%.
No party is expected to win outright in the capital, Pretoria, and the surrounding Tshwane municipality, along with the economic hub of Johannesburg and several other towns, meaning they’re likely to continue being run by unstable coalitions.
“It is actually a very, very sad case in the sense that so many voters are unhappy with the choices they have made,” Ipsos Director Mari Harri, said in a 29 October interview.
“There are about 20 to 25% of voters who say they are going to vote for a new party. I don’t think the ANC is in a very good place right now, but neither are most of the other parties.”
A series of reports by the National Treasury and Auditor-General highlight the dire state of local government, with mismanagement rife, key posts vacant or filled by unqualified personnel, and billions of rand misspent or misappropriated.
Just 27 of the 257 municipalities received clean audit reports last year, 163 of them were in financial distress and 102 adopted budgets they were unable to fund.
Municipal IQ, which collates local-government data, logged 868 protest against municipalities in the past five years, and 53 in the first five months of 2021.
Collapsing services have been a major deterrent to investment, with dairy company Clover Industries planning to relocate operations from the crumbling northern town of Lichtenberg and poultry producer Astral Foods suing the eastern Lekwa municipality for failing to provide water and electricity.
The decay is evident in Osizweni township in Newcastle, an industrial hub 255 kilometers (158 miles) southeast of Johannesburg, where the streets are disintegrating and residents complain the water supply is contaminated.
Ntuthuko Mahlaba, the outgoing mayor, was removed from the ANC’s candidates list for the upcoming vote after he was prosecuted on charges including theft and an assault that left a man partially paralyzed.
Deputy President David Mabuza bought Osizweni to a standstill when he arrived in a 15-vehicle convoy to campaign last weekend Despite the disgruntlement with their living conditions, most people said they’d still vote for the ANC, because they had no other political home.
In previous elections, the party’s dissatisfied supporters have tended not to cast ballots rather than vote for the opposition.
Africa’s oldest political movement, the ANC continues to draw backing – particularly among older voters – because of the leading role it played in the fight against apartheid, and has shored up support by disbursing welfare grants and housing.
The party’s reputation was badly scarred by Jacob Zuma’s nine-year presidency, which was marred by a succession of scandals, damage his popular successor Ramaphosa has struggled to repair since he took office in early 2018.
Ramaphosa conceded that some ANC councillors have neglected their constituents and urged voters to give the party another chance. Its candidates have the backing of the communities they serve and tainted ones have been weeded out, he said.
“We are ridding this organization of corruption and bad practices. We have admitted we made mistakes,” the president said at a party rally in Cape Town’s working-class suburb of Rylands this month.
“This is a now-or-never moment for the ANC and this is what is energizing us for the ANC. We know what it means to restore the effectiveness and integrity of the ANC.”
The ruling party’s saving grace has been the absence of a strong opposition.
The DA governs the top five best-run municipalities, a study by Ratings Afrika found, yet the party’s predominantly White leadership has struggled to gain traction in a country where 80% of the population is Black. And while the EFF’s calls to nationalize land, banks and mines have resonated among many poor, Black township residents, it hasn’t made major inroads into rural areas.
The elections are being contested by 95,247 candidates, including 1,546 independents, and 26.2 million people have registered to vote.