Western Cape success makes the ANC look worse and worse – Alexander Parker

In the wake of South Africa’s recent catastrophic storm, the stark contrast in governance between the Western Cape and the rest of the nation has become painfully evident. The African National Congress (ANC), once hailed for its efforts to uplift the country’s poorest citizens, now faces the erosion of its legacy due to 15 years of corruption and mismanagement. South African municipalities, plagued by financial woes, political infighting, and a myriad of crises, are witnessing a hastened decline that is testing the resilience of its diverse populace. The looming elections reflect growing frustration and diminishing ANC support as other opposition parties rally to address the country’s pressing challenges.es. South Africa, though historically divided, is now more united in its discontent with the ANC.

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Cape Town Is Making South Africa’s ANC Look Worse and Worse: Alexander Parker

By Alexander Parker

After the most powerful storm in decades battered South Africa’s Cape last month, local authorities stepped up quickly to contain the damage. The effective response highlights the growing inequality between the Western Cape and the rest of the country, which has failed to quell its own crises. It’s a glaring governance gap that will hurt the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party at next year’s polls.

For the ANC, the gains it has presided over in improving the lives of the poorest South Africans are being eroded by the snowballing consequences of 15 years of corruption and nepotism. Local government is visibly more dysfunctional than ever. As the party’s popularity has waned in the cities, municipal governments have been blighted by bickering coalitions. Johannesburg, the country’s economic engine, has had six mayors in the past two years. Tshwane (the metro including Pretoria) has had four.

The impact on South African towns and cities has been a hastened decline. Municipal finances are in a shocking state. Of the country’s 257 municipalities, only 38 received a clean audit last year from the auditor general. Of those, 21 were in the Western Cape, which is politically dominated by the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party. Jointly, South Africa’s municipalities owe Eskom, the state-owned electricity monopoly, 63 billion South African rand ($3.3 billion).

Examples of decline abound. The port city of Gqeberha (formerly Port Elizabeth), home to manufacturing operations of companies such as Volkswagen AG, ran out of water in 2022, and supply has not been restored in swaths of the city. In May, 23 people died in a cholera outbreak in Hammanskraal, north of Pretoria. An investigation will probe reports that a 295 million rand municipal tender to fix the local wastewater works was awarded to a businessman implicated in “state capture” during former ANC President Jacob Zuma’s administration.

This shows that even the more stable metros are scarcely able to provide the most basic services. When crisis strikes, they are in no position to cope. And the crises are rolling in like the breakers on the beach in Cape Town.

Some are the fruits of decades of incoherent energy policy. Eskom, which is functionally bankrupt, has been unable to reliably produce enough electricity since 2008. Its performance has deteriorated markedly. Last year, there were power cuts on 205 days of the year. In 2023 so far, the utility has managed just a handful of days without having to cut power.

In Gauteng, the province including Johannesburg and Pretoria and run by the ANC, a water crisis is in full swing. Taps in some areas have run dry for weeks. South Africa’s corporate capital, the suburb of Sandton just north of Johannesburg, experienced a water outage two weeks ago, closing bathrooms and canteens in the head offices. Note that there is no drought — this is pure mismanagement.

Climate change-related crises are also overwhelming weak local governments run by the ANC. The numbers are shocking — flooding in Durban in 2022 killed more than 430 people, and the city has not been able to repair its infrastructure. Pollution from damaged sewerage has made swimming in once-popular beaches risky. In Johannesburg, the City owns more than 20,000 properties and mismanagement is rife. An abandoned building was recently razed by fire, killing 76 people people who were living there in appalling conditions.

South Africa has always been a country of immense inequality. According to the World Bank, the country’s GINI coefficient (a measure of income distribution) was the worst in the world last year. This is a result of historical colonial and apartheid rule, and inequality remains highly racialized. For the ANC, however, the result of snowballing dysfunction is now hammering its core constituency — the people who benefited most from the democratic transition — and threatens to undo the positive changes it brought to how municipalities are governed and where money is spent.

Read more: South Africa’s quiet revolution: The emergence of substitute governments and constitutional no-man’s lands

It’s impossible not to draw comparisons between the cities run by the ANC for decades (now in the grip of political infighting) and those run by the DA to see how differently they respond to crisis. The Western Cape’s handling of the recent storm was not the first time it dealt with an emergency. In 2018, Cape Town, a city of more than 4 million people, came close to running out of water after a drought. The city’s experts worked on the reticulation, pressure management and — most impressively — a communications campaign that drove behavioral change to almost halve consumption. The taps never ran dry. 

The Western Cape routinely sends disaster-management teams to other parts of the country when there is a crisis, as the province is generally better prepared. One explanation for this is the ANC’s continued commitment to “cadre deployment,” the mechanism currently under legal challenge from the DA that parachutes ANC-connected people into technocratic roles they are not necessarily qualified for. The Western Cape, while far from perfect, is more likely to appoint experts based on their skills.

It’s a lazy oversimplification to say that elections in Africa are little more than ethnic surveys, but there is an element of this in the Western Cape, which is demographically dominated by Coloured voters (in South Africa, “Coloured” is a racial category separate from “Black”), the majority of whom historically vote against the ANC, and in the Cape Town, where the substantial White and Coloured population votes for the DA in overwhelming numbers.

Although the ANC has never held provincial or municipal power in the Western Cape (apart from a brief period between 1999 and 2004), the party should worry about the widening gap between the region and the rest of the country. For voters, the provision of basic services (or lack thereof) matters. South Africans are legendarily resilient, but the decline is so bad that even those who are inured to indifferent or hostile governments are exasperated.

Strangely, this shared frustration is making South Africa more homogenous. At times, the electorate can resemble Benjamin Disraeli’s The Two Nations, but when people of all backgrounds start to experience decline instead of progress, the electoral fortunes of those in charge start to wane.

That is what polls are showing: Support for the ANC has sunk to as low as 40% by some estimates. Others see the party  scraping past the 50% mark to hang onto its majority. The DA has joined a coalition agreement with six other opposition parties with the aim of ensuring frustration with the ANC results in their removal from office.

While it’s likely the ANC will remain dominant after next year’s election, it will never be as all-powerful again. South Africa’s trajectory lies in the partners the ANC chooses in a possible coalition government, the sincerity with which it pursues renewal, and the level of solidarity among opposition parties.

Whatever happens, South Africa, for all its schisms, is more homogenous than ever — and it’s increasingly fed up with the ANC

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