South Africa’s municipal elections on August 3 were among the most important in the brief history of the country’s democracy. Although the ruling African National Congress (ANC) maintained its rural strongholds in the country’s north and east, the party lost majority control of South Africa’s largest metropolitan areas, from Johannesburg to Port Elizabeth. In just two years, the ANC’s share of the vote has fallen from 62 percent to less than 55 percent. In some of South Africa’s cities, those losses are nearly twice as high.

The ANC has ruled South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994, but it faces growing threats from the left, from the right, and from within the party itself. From the left, the Economic Freedom Fighters—a self-styled Marxist–Leninist–Fanonist Party—has attracted the support of many young people who are leaving the ANC to seek more radical solutions to the country’s 50 percent youth unemployment rate; since 2013, the party has captured hundreds of posts once held by the ANC. From the right, the Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s largest opposition party, has seized control of important cities such as Cape Town and Tshwane, appealing to middle-class voters fed up with economic stagnation, official corruption, and poor public services. And within the ANC, disputes over the flow of party patronage have pitted a rural base loyal to South African President Jacob Zuma against the urban party members who seek to oust him. Intraparty strife often exploded into violence in the run-up to the election: in June, five people died in protests sparked by the announcement of the ANC’s mayoral candidate in Tshwane. In the province of Kwazulu–Natal, 12 ANC candidates were assassinated this year in the struggle for local posts.

A dominant party system may deteriorate into a fractured and volatile one.

The election results represent a moment of reckoning for party elites who have long abused their political dominance. Zuma has governed with impunity—he appropriated some $23 million of government funds to upgrade a mansion in his hometown, for example—and has asserted more than once that the ANC will rule until Jesus Christ returns to Earth. In this context, some observers have argued, the erosion of the party’s dominance suggests that South Africa’s democracy is maturing. “There is an element of unpredictability [that may] inject an element of accountability in the political system,” Prince Mashele, the executive director of the Centre for Politics and Research, a South African think tank, told the AFP. This is the logic of the democratic marketplace: the end of the ANC’s monopoly on power will produce political competition, and political competition will generate better governance.  

In fact, however, the ANC’s decline carries real dangers. Far from guaranteeing better governance, a more competitive electoral landscape portends South Africa’s fragmentation. The ruling party’s waning power will weaken the patronage ties that bind local elites to national officials across the vast expanse of the South African state, encouraging regional bosses to pursue power more ruthlessly and with less oversight from the center. That could produce local governments that are accountable neither to their citizens nor to national authorities.


When South Africa transitioned to democracy in 1994, its new leaders were tasked with integrating a broad set of institutions spread out over a variety of administrative sectors. The policy of “separate development” under apartheid involved the devolution of power to South Africa’s local homelands, or Bantustans. It fell to the ANC to create a unitary state from these fragments: ten Bantustans, 14 regional legislatures, 151 administrative departments, and 650,000 homeland officials in all, covering some 40 percent of South Africa’s population.

The end of apartheid did not guarantee that local leaders would cede their power to the new national authorities. After the transition, the ANC had to work out bargains to corral local elites, some of whom it had clashed with in the years before 1994. The party’s task was both administrative and political. On the administrative side, as recent work by the Public Affairs Research Institute, a South African think tank, has shown, the country’s new National Treasury worked tirelessly to develop a partnership with the freshly integrated Bantustans through which local accounts would be brought in line with national fiscal policy. But the relationship between the Treasury and these local authorities never rested easy, as bureaucrats in the center sought to tame profligacy in the provinces. Zuma’s firing of the respected Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene in December—for his efforts to curb the president’s excessive spending on his clients—demonstrates that these problems persist today.

An Economic Freedom Fighters billboard in Soweto, South Africa, August 2016.
An Economic Freedom Fighters billboard in Soweto, South Africa, August 2016.
Siphiwe Sibeko / REUTERS

The ANC made several key concessions to local authorities to moderate this tension. The Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Act of 2003, for example, granted official status to the tribal authorities by establishing traditional councils with control over local disputes. In 2004, the government of South African President Thabo Mbeki passed the Communal Land Rights Act, which provided those councils with titles to the land in the Bantustans. Although it was eventually struck down by a South African court, the act was a clear gesture of accommodation by the national government.

The result of this process is that South Africa’s local politics are national in content but parochial in form. On the one hand, the ANC has partnered with authorities on the periphery to redistribute some four percent of South Africa’s GDP to the country’s 17 million poorer citizens. On the other hand, local elites often demand voter loyalty in exchange for access to crucial resources such as jobs and government contracts.

This form of neopatrimonial politics opens the door for much of the ANC’s corruption. Local elites distribute jobs to their friends and family and offer government contracts to “tenderpreneurs”—a South African portmanteau that refers to businesspeople whose income comes largely from state tenders. The size of the graft is impossible to pin down, but it is probably massive: government tenders make up roughly 12 percent of South Africa’s $724 billion GDP, and scandals related to irregularities in the tendering process appear in the South African media almost weekly. 

It is against this patronage system that the country’s opposition parties rail. The Democratic Alliance and its partners promise a leak-proof bureaucracy akin to the one the party has established in its stronghold of the Western Cape, where the municipalities it governs enjoy water, electricity, and waste removal services that are among the country’s best. For the Democratic Alliance, these were the stakes of the August 3 election: a state that works or a state that steals.

Yet this pitch fails to recognize the fragile relationship between the central authorities and local governments. The Democratic Alliance is right that the blurred line between state and party has enabled ANC officials to abuse their positions for partisan ends. Yet the murkiness has also served a functional purpose: by enlisting local leaders into the party through the painful push-and-pull of the last two decades, the ANC managed to convince them to buy into the project of the South African state. The Democratic Alliance’s pursuit of a more technocratic form of governance may only serve to alienate those leaders and sever their ties to the national authorities.

In recent years, that danger has already come to fruition within the ANC. At its 52nd National Conference in 2007, the ANC revolted against Mbeki, whom party members accused of centralizing power in an “imperial presidency.” His platform of market liberalization attracted waves of foreign investment, but rural bosses and union leaders questioned the equity of his policies, which they claimed enriched an urban elite at the expense of the ANC’s promise of universal economic liberation. In Mbeki’s stead, they empowered Zuma, who offered to represent the interests of South Africa’s rural populations in places such as the North West, the Free State, and Mpumalanga. Today, the premiers of those three provinces hold considerable influence over the presidential administration.

Any effort to reform South African politics must first reckon with Zuma and his allies’ continued popularity in large swaths of the country—its rural regions in particular. Zuma’s supporters have neither been tricked into loyalty nor entranced by his charisma. They are responding to the ANC’s promise to provide welfare in the absence of economic opportunity. Corruption, the opposition’s call to arms, is not their primary concern. For these voters, the opposition’s promise to deliver change to South Africa threatens only to stem the flow of patronage, making local strongmen neither indebted nor accountable to the party’s central leadership. A political transition from ANC dominance without an economic transition toward more inclusive growth could isolate the country’s most vulnerable citizens from their government even further.  

Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane (L) and Athol Trollip, the party's mayoral candidate for Nelson Mandela Bay, in Port Elizabeth, August 2016.
Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane in Port Elizabeth, August 2016.
Luvuyo Mehlwana / REUTERS


Plagued by scandals, Zuma’s approval rating has plummeted to just 21 percent. Opposition parties from both sides of the political spectrum are growing fast. When South Africa’s voter participation rates are taken into consideration, the ANC’s prospects appear even darker: of those 50 percent of citizens registered to vote, only 62 percent participated in Wednesday’s elections. Among young voters, abstention was driven less by apathy than anger with the ruling party.    

It is possible that the ANC's losses will inspire a movement to transform the party, unite its warring factions, and present a new vision to the nation that promises economic opportunity for all. If competition is indeed an engine of innovation, then the ANC may emerge from its recent troubles a better, stronger party. There is some evidence that the ANC leadership views the election results as a mandate for reform.

But competition may also produce fragmentation. The ANC’s factions may abandon what they see as a sinking ship, create new parties, and try to form coalitions of opportunity. Indeed, South Africa’s constitution established a framework that is amenable to such breakaway politics: three independent spheres of government—national, provincial, and local—are brought together in a unitary structure that is nevertheless highly decentralized. As a result, in the coming years, a dominant party system may deteriorate into a fractured and volatile one. 

The ruling party’s waning power will weaken the patronage ties that bind local elites to national officials.

The dangers of such fragmentation are many. For one, the ANC’s ruling factions will likely not go gently into electoral decline. The municipal election demonstrated that the ANC is willing squeeze its coffers as hard as necessary to hold onto power: the party spent more than $70 million on its campaign—double its expenditures in the run-up to the 2014 general election—devoting more resources to t-shirts and rallies and less to the daily work of governing the country. In regions such as KwaZulu–Natal, fragmentation will also encourage more political violence, as local elites struggle to retain control of their posts.

Making matters worse, there is little evidence to suggest that the opposition parties are on the whole less corrupt—or more competent—than the ANC. It is true that the Democratic Alliance has had some technocratic successes in the Western Cape. But that party has never had to manage the Bantustans. Its potential to integrate their local politicians into a cohesive national program is untested; that it could do so while simultaneously stanching out patrimonialism seems far-fetched. 

In this sense, the greatest danger of fragmentation is that it will threaten the very cohesion of the South African state. Civil war is certainly not on the horizon, but as the ANC is consumed by infighting, regional party leaders will likely choose to bolster their fiefdoms over complying with orders from the top.

Many will celebrate the ANC’s decline, but fragmentation would mark a turn to a disconcerting second phase in South Africa’s young democracy—and it may lead to a government that is even worse at serving its citizens.

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  • DAVID ADLER is a graduate student in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Oxford University.
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