South Africans cast their votes in local elections on Wednesday and if the opinion polls can be relied upon, the African National Congress’s control of urban politics in the post-apartheid era is under serious threat.
Other than the city of Cape Town, where the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) has held a majority since 2011, the ruling ANC has controlled the political landscape at municipal level in all major cities since the advent of democracy in 1994.
But recent weekly surveys published by market researcher Ipsos have consistently polled the DA ahead of the ANC as the party of choice in four of the country's eight major metropolitan areas (metros).
In the most recent poll the main opposition party had the support of 42 per cent of respondents in Port Elizabeth, 36 per cent in Johannesburg and 40 per cent in Pretoria. This compared to 28 per cent support for the ANC in Port Elizabeth, 31 per cent in Johannesburg and 23 per cent in Pretoria. The DA is also expected to hold on to power in Cape Town, and by a comfortable margin.
The new kid on the block, firebrand Julius Malema's Economic Freedom Fighters, was on 6 per cent support in Port Elizabeth, 9 per cent in Johannesburg and 13 per cent in Pretoria. While its numbers are small in comparison with the big two, the party is taking support away from the ANC rather than the DA.
However, over the past week the ANC has staged something of a comeback in the cities of Pretoria and Johannesburg, pulling slightly ahead of the DA in the latest polls for these cities.
Nevertheless, most political analysts believe the era of coalition politics is about to come to South Africa’s big metros, which would be something the ANC is unaccustomed to.
The earlier weekly polls, many observers believe, reflected voters’ dissatisfaction with the ruling party’s service delivery record, unemployment, the ongoing scandals swirling around President
and the high levels of corruption affecting the ANC.
The party has remained bullish about its local election chances when campaigning around the country, maintaining the overarching line that only the ANC is capable of running South Africa.
However, the fact that its core canvassing messages are steeped in race-based politics and its history as South Africa’s liberation movement, rather than its service delivery record, shows the true level of concern that party strategists harbour about the election outcome.
Speaking last week in Tembisa township, Mr Zuma took the ANC's campaign in a more race-based direction by suggesting the DA remained the party of the apartheid-era's white oppressors. This is in spite of the fact that a black man, Mmusi Maimane, leads the DA.
“Where does a black man get the nerve to team up with oppressors of his people, even to an extent where he decides to lead them? When you see the DA, just know that they are our oppressors,” Mr Zuma told the crowd.
The problem for the ANC is that the DA has proven in the
Province that it runs better municipalities than the ruling party.
In February the Good Governance Africa agency released a report ranking all of the country's 234 municipalities, in which it found that 15 of the top 20 municipalities were in the DA-run Western Cape. Of the 15, "four are run by the ANC, eight by the DA, and three by coalitions that include the DA".
At this stage few of the parties are talking openly about coalitions, but it will be intriguing to see who is prepared to get into bed with whom for the sake of power. Indeed, the small parties outside the big three are not expected to do well, but they may become kingmakers once the negotiations begin.
The DA is well-acquainted with coalitions, having gained its first foothold in significant power with a seven-party coalition in 2006 in Cape Town metro. Some of the coalition partners subsequently merged into the DA, which then won Cape Town outright in 2011.
Since then, the DA has also formed a number of coalitions in smaller municipalities. The ANC, on the other hand, has no tradition of sharing power at this level.