South Africa: Does the ANC still have people power?

An ANC (African National Congress) supporter takes part in an election victory celebration in Johannesburg 20 May 2011
Image caption The voters rewarded the ANC with an average 60% of the vote nationwide

As results for South Africa's local government elections come out, a few key phrases have emerged as the defining words of the campaign.

First you will hear observers saying with pride: "Our democracy is maturing!"

It is taken for granted that it is indeed the case - this 17-year-old democracy is maturing.

The other phrase has been "service delivery", something which communities have been demanding in the months preceding Wednesday's poll.

I remember that when Nelson Mandela was campaigning for South Africa's very first democratic elections in 1994, he did not talk about service delivery.

Then, the African National Congress (ANC) was promising voters new houses, electricity, clean water, schools, hospitals and so on.

In fact, I attended political rallies before 1994 where there was only one message: "We want one man, one vote".

That later became "We want houses" and "We want jobs".

Image caption Open-air toilets were a top election issue

Now, those have evolved into "We want service delivery", with people wanting candidates to the promise they will do what they say.

But perhaps the most fascinating word to be chanted has been "toilet".

I do not know of any election campagin that has focused so much on the promise of toilets.

A few months before the elections, the ANC attacked the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) for building toilets without walls in a shanty town outside Cape Town.

ANC leaders were so furious with the DA that they took them to court to force them to build walls around toilets which had been left in the open for months. They accused the DA of racism.

Then on the eve of the elections, it suddenly emerged that the ANC had itself built similar toilets in the township of Rammulotsi, in the Free State municipality of Muqhaka.

There were 1,600 of them, in fact, in a distrcit ruled by an ANC council, led by an ANC mayor, and located in an ANC-run province.

Surprisingly, the ANC managed to retain control of Muqhaka.

Opposition in roads

The DA meanwhile broke the "white ceiling".

It has traditionally enjoyed support from largely white communities, but made inroads in the African vote on Wednesday.

Image caption The ANC did well in areas known as metro cities

The DA succeeded by taking votes from smaller parties rather than from the ANC itself.

This was illustrated by the fact that all the major "metro cities" are still under ANC control except Cape Town, which the DA won outright.

In Port Elizabeth, Nelson Mandela Bay and eThekwini, the ANC retained power.

But the warning signs are clear - the ANC does not enjoy a free ride any more.

It just scraped by in Mr Mandela's home province of Eastern Cape with 52% of the vote - down 15 percentage points from the last local election. The DA came second with 40%, up from 25%.

Before the vote was cast, commentators said that if the DA secured more than 20% of the vote nationwide, it would be a significant result. Well, it bettered that target, winning 24% of the vote nationwide.

Mondli Makhanya, editor-in-chief at Avusa media group, said the ANC was too focused on fighting internal succession battles ahead of the 2012 general election.

It consequently forgot to vigorously seek votes at the beginning of the campaign. Their effort only gathered momentum late in the day.

That is why in many other smaller municipalities the DA and the ANC splinter group, the Congress of the People (Cope), are joining forces to form anti-ANC coalitions.

Nevertheless, the ANC has built houses, roads, schools, hospitals and much more since coming to power in 1994, and the voters rewarded it with 62% of the vote nationwide.

However, it seems voting patterns are slowly starting to change.

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