'Political sideshow' reveals ANC advantage

Britt Youens contends that developments in local government foreshadow greater ANC dominance.

Summary - Despite the clamour surrounding the national election, the results are increasingly insignificant. It is less important to know the exact percentage of the ANC’s vote than to be aware of the subtle undercurrents of the defection periods and the municipal by-elections where the real battle for power is taking place. Between the end of February 2001 and mid-December 2003, 225 by-elections were contested nationwide. By-elections are expensive and time-consuming, and therefore parties tend to choose their by-election opportunities carefully. The DA and the ANC are the only two parties that have contested by-elections in every province; other parties have concentrated on specific regions. During this period the ANC contested 205 seats with a net gain of seven seats. The DA contested 81with a net loss of nine, but with a significant increase in support levels in the contests. The IFP contested 88 with a net loss of two. Thus overall the smaller parties have not fared well in by-elections, and the ANC appears to be gaining the advantage. The defection period for local government that took place in October 2002 is more important than has generally been recognised. It is here that the ANC has attempted to annihilate or co-opt other parties, and where the DA has failed to convince people that it is a viable alternative to the ANC. Of the multitude of parties represented in local government, only the ANC, DA and ACDP are represented in every province. The IFP, UDM and PAC are represented in eight, while Azapo, the Freedom Front and the UCDP and represented in between two and seven provinces. All the other 57 parties are represented in only one province, and often in only one municipality. The small parties represent very localised interests and have limited resources, but they play an important role in fracturing opposition support and often provide floating alliance partners in tightly contested municipalities. The ANC has gained the most defections from smaller parties, and it has also increased its presence in most municipalities, whether or not it governs them. Despite the DA’s call to form a coalition for change, it has been unable to attract smaller opposition party representatives. Moreover, it has lost 340 councillors to the NNP, 51 to the ANC and 19 who became Independents. It has therefore decreased from just under a third of the ANC's strength to just over a fifth.

Once the euphoria of a national election settles, it is then that we should be wary and more alert to the undercurrents of South Africa’s democratic condition. In the next year, for example, parties will fight national and provincial elections, partake in the “Ten-Year Celebration”, and battle a long series of inevitable by-elections and the second defection period open to local government.

Additionally, towards the end of the year, parties will start to focus on the second defection period for national and provincial representatives and the 2005 local government elections. Politicians are destined to have a tiring, expensive and an ambiguous race. In between all the power-mongering, head-counting and press slander they may manage to fit in a little service to the people.

Despite the clamour surrounding the national election, the results will be increasingly insignificant — at least until the point that the African National Congress (ANC) starts to lose noteworthy ground. It is of less concern to find out whether the ANC will win 67 per cent or 65 per cent of the vote while the major political objective of increased power festers in more subtle undertones in the defection periods and to a lesser extent in municipal by-elections.

I would rather consider this undercurrent, by analysing the stepchild — local government — and consider the slow yet effective, stealthy slink of the ANC, and its new alliance partner, the New National Party (NNP), in increasing the power of the gold, green and black over the political landscape1.

Municipal by-elections

Between 28 February 2001 and 17 December 2003, 225 by-elections were contested nationwide (with varying quantities within each province) as a result of the same number of ward positions being vacated mid-term due to retirement, dismissal, illness, resignation, redeployment and death.

After the national and provincial elections this year, many additional by-elections will be contested on account of current local government representatives, who are ward councillors, being elected to either provincial or national government. Of course this excludes ANC ward councillors, as they have been ordered by the party not to accept nomination onto any provincial or national ANC list, and with good reason.

By-elections are expensive, time-consuming and there is always a risk of losing a seat (although this risk is more pronounced in some areas than in others). Furthermore, by-elections give your opposition the opportunity to canvass and to register more of ‘their’ voters. Proportional representative councillors simply get bumped on or off the list without additional hassle to the party.

Strategically, it makes sense for parties to choose their by-election opportunities very carefully. The polemic of where and when to contest a by-election is heightened in municipalities where governance is held by a one-seat margin, as governance can be lost mid-term usually on a very low voter’s poll. Considering this, the Democratic Alliance (DA) and ANC are the only two parties to contest by-elections in every province, with the other larger opposition parties choosing to concentrate on regional or provincial concerns (for example the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) in KwaZulu-Natal and the United Democratic Movement (UDM) in the Eastern Cape, as is to be expected).

Of the four major parties that have featured in by-elections over the abovementioned period, one can consider the seats lost, retained, and won from another party and thus calculate a party’s rate of positive return2.

The ANC contested 205 by-elections, retaining 134, winning 12 seats from other parties (7:DA/ 1:Independent/ 1:Independent Civic Organisation of SA/ 2:IFP/ 1:United Christian Democratic Party (UCDP)), losing 5 seats (1:IFP/ 3:DA/ 1: Independent) and was placed second or lower in the results in 55 = 71 per cent chance of success.

The DA has contested 81 by-elections, retaining 27, winning 1 seat from other parties (1:ANC), losing 10 seats (7:ANC/ 2:Freedom Front (FF)/ 1:Independent) and was placed second or lower in the results in 53 = 34 per cent chance of success.

The IFP has contested 88 by-elections, retaining 44, winning no seats from other parties, losing 2 seats (2:ANC) and was placed second or lower in the results in 42 = 50 per cent chance of success.

The UDM has contested 46 by-elections, retaining 3, neither winning seats from other parties nor losing any seats and was placed second or lower in the results in 43 = 6 per cent chance of success.

These results show that of the smaller parties that have contested by-elections, all have failed to win a seat and have therefore been relatively insignificant to the result. Two caveats to this trend are evident though — firstly, the FF’s triumph over the DA on two occasions and, secondly, two Independent candidates winning seats from the ANC and the DA.

By-elections only result in the one victor who wins the ward seat. Most often, smaller, localised parties compete with the larger opposition parties for votes in these wards. What the abovementioned results do not show is the effect that smaller parties have on reducing the number of votes larger opposition parties could capture. Larger opposition parties often cannot win the seat due to a split in the opposition vote.

Finally, by-elections are important where parties are able to capture occasional ward seats and narrow the margins by which a municipality is held mid-term, converting this advantage into a battle charge for governance during the defection period. So far, the ANC appears to be gaining the advantage.

The October 2002 defection period

While much has been written and surmised about the defection period for national and provincial representatives (especially the shenanigans in KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape) that took place in April 2003, very little has been said about the local government defection period in October the year before. The exceptions to this being the loss of the city of Cape Town by the DA to the ANC and the additional losses the DA suffered to the NNP.

The local government defections, while less glamorous, are however much more important than they are given credit for. While the ANC has an obvious overarching dominance nationally and provincially (bar the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal), it is in local government that a slow creep towards an attempted annihilation of the major opposition groups and incorporation of representatives of the minor opposition groups is most evident. Additionally, as a result of the October defection period, the DA has lost much of its opportunity to prove its competence as a ruling party alternative to the ANC.

It is useful to note that of the multitude of political parties represented in local government, only the ANC, DA and African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) are represented in at least one municipality in every province. The IFP, UDM and Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC) are represented in at least eight provinces, while the Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO), the various Independents, FF and UCDP are represented in between two and seven provinces. All the other parties represented in local government prior to the October 2002 defection period, of which there are 57, are only represented in one province and often only in one municipality.

These very small parties obviously represent very localised interests and, it is assumed, have limited resources and support structures. They do however play a very important role in fracturing the opposition support in a large percentage of municipalities, as well as often providing a floating alliance partner within very tightly contested municipalities. While the total number of councillors from smaller parties constitute a very small percentage of the total number of all councillors (approximately one per cent), their presence in individual municipalities makes them important.

The trends for smaller parties over the defection period show the following:

The ANC gained the most defections to it from the smaller parties with 17, the DA gained nine councillors (only to lose seven DA councillors to other smaller parties), the NNP gained 11 new councillors from these parties, the IFP and ACDP gained none and the UDM five.

Prior to the defection period 112 councillors belonged to these smaller parties, while after the defection period this number had decreased slightly to 105 councillors. While a large proportion of councillors from these smaller parties were lost to the more dominant parties, the significant shift was between smaller parties and from larger parties to smaller ones.

Smaller parties therefore continue to capture minority seats in many municipalities, adding to the splintering of opposition. Furthermore, councillors from smaller parties have chosen the ANC in larger numbers than any other party. Despite the DA’s call to form a coherent “Coalition for Change”, the party seems unable to draw large numbers of smaller opposition party representatives.

Additionally, it is difficult to analyse why people defect, as no concrete evidence regarding the October 2002 defection period exists. The pious say that their consciences pulled them across to a better political home, but the rumour mill attests to bribery and intimidation, especially of new and young councillors. If a wad of ‘cheetah bills’ or enticing appointments is the name of the game, smaller parties should be weighing up their ability to compete and indeed answering whether or not they should compete.

Further, the DA suffered a damaging lesson in alliance politics and has now opted for an attempted coalition of parties instead. However, coalitions are not particularly secure and can disintegrate at a moment’s notice — leaving the opposition fractious against a growing monolith.

Noticeably the ANC and the Independents were the only two political parties / groups, aside from the NNP (which, starting from a base of zero councillors had to increase in numbers), to increase their total number of councillors, by 91 and 14 councillors respectively. The DA lost a larger than expected 340 councillors to its previous alliance partner the NNP. But of greater concern were the 51 councillors who defected to the ANC and 19 who defected to become Independents. The DA therefore maintained just over 1000 councillors, down from over 1400 councillors and shifting in proportion to the ANC from just under a third of the ANC’s strength to just over a fifth.

In addition to the DA and smaller party defectors to the ANC, the ruling party gained another six Independents, seven IFP councillors, 16 UDM councillors, 24 UCDP councillors and ten PAC councillors. None of the opposition parties gained anywhere close to this number of defectors.

Suffice it to say that despite the cacophony of comment regarding the tussle between the DA and NNP, it is the ANC that was the overall winner in gathering new councillors from across most of the political spectrum.


Aside from the number of councillors crossing the floor, the major wins that interest most analysts are those regarding changes in governance after the defection period. As Tables two and three show, not only did the ANC increase the number of municipalities it governs from 174 to 188, it also decreased the number of co-governance situations from eight to three. In stark contrast, the DA lost relatively significantly, both in terms of the councils it governed independently and those it co-governed with the ANC.

Interestingly, on a municipality-by-municipality basis, of the municipalities the DA lost, the ANC won all of them bar one (to the NNP). The re-introduction of the NNP therefore resulted almost solely in handing over municipalities to the ANC.

Changes in municipal governance are obvious advances for the ANC. However, the party has also increased its presence in the majority of municipalities whether or not it actually governs them. Table four and Table five reflect these shifts showing the increasing pressure the ANC is placing on governance margins as well as on the opposition parties’ ability to defend their positions.

While numbers are one thing, there are also additional costs to parties resulting from the defection period. These costs include lost investment in representatives, new investment needed to retain representatives and the damage caused by paranoia in caucuses suspecting that moles have been purposefully left behind to leak information. Defection theatrics are also costly — the bated breaths before representatives cross over, the last minute dash, the second thoughts, the bribes, intimidation and political spin doctoring. These dramas do little for our trust in democracy, and feed the anger with which the electorate have responded to this development. Thus, regardless of the gains to opposition parties during regular election periods, the ANC is continuously getting stronger hile opposition parties appear to be losing ground in counteracting its strategic advances.

1 All the data and figures used in this piece are extrapolated from the Independent Electoral Commission’s results from the October 2002 local government defection. These results were available on the IEC website (http://www.elections.org.za), but now seem to have been removed. Comparative results from the 2000 local government election have also been extrapolated and used here and are available on the IEC website at [link], with by-election results available at [link].
2 A positive rate of return is a result that is either seats won from other parties or seat retention. These figures obviously exclude the value parties may place on other reasons for contesting a by-election, which to them may be weighted as successes depending on the result. These reasons include increasing support in the relevant ward despite still losing (as is often argued by the DA in unsuccessful ward contestations); bolstering a coalition partner by skimming off voters who may not vote for one coalition partner but possibly for the other (again, as in DA contestation in wards dominated by IFP / ANC voters with smaller, but possibly counter-weighting DA support); or as a spoiling tactic to divide opposition votes despite a low rate of return on actually winning.

Table 1: By-election results
Overall results for the four major parties that have contested by-elections (28 February 2001 – 17 December 2003
Party No. of by-elections contested Seats retained Seats won from other parties Seats lost Placed second or lower in results
ANC 205 134 12
(7:DA / 1:Independent / 1:Independent Civic Organisation of SA / 2:IFP / 1:UCDP)
(1:IFP / 3:DA / 1: Independent)
DA 81 27 1
(7:ANC / 2:Freedom Front (FF) / 1:Independent)
IFP 88 44 0 2(2:ANC) 42
UDM 46 3 0 0 43


Table 2: Governance, or co-governance, of municipalities
Prior to the October 2002 Defection Period (excludes district councils)


Eastern Cape 37 1 1 - - - - - - -
Free State 20 - - - - - - -