South African elections: Ruling party at crossroad

Local elections are the barometer of the depth of democracy in South Africa.

Returning to the polls today (Wednesday), in the fifth local election since the dissolution of the apartheid state in 1994, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party will find out how well it still represents the aspiration of the South African people.

Al Jazeera revealed that opposition parties are calling time on the ANC’s dominance of the country’s politics, but it would be foolish to rule the party out.

It’s not just that this is the party of national luminaries and revered public figures such as Chief Albert Luthuli and Nelson Mandela, to name a few, but also that, for many of the ANC’s disgruntled supporters, a credible alternative has apparently not yet emerged.

High unemployment, corruption and poor service delivery have been the main issues dominating the election campaign.

At least 26 percent of South Africans are without work. The ruling ANC government has been hit by string of corruption scandals, most notably the $20m funnelled into upgrading President Jacob Zuma’s personal home in Nkandla.

According to Municipal IQ, a data and intelligence service specialising in the monitoring and assessment of South Africa’s 283 municipalities, there were at least 70 protests against a lack of decent housing, education and other services in the first four months of the year.

In 2015, there were 44 protests within the same period.

Professor Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg, says the unresponsiveness of local government is one reason driving community protests.

It is, however, not the only driver of dissent.

“Unfortunately, you cannot separate local government from the socio-economic conditions in which it operates,” Friedman said.

“The reality is that in areas in which protests occur, for example township areas, local government is very often a source of accumulating resources, either through leadership positions, or residents who are often excluded from economic benefits hope that by attaching themselves to particular politicians, they will be able to access resources.”