In just nine days, South Africans will return to the polls to vote for several thousand local councilors throughout the country. At first blush, this might seem a singularly mundane event. But consider a few facts: First off, South Africa is one of the continent’s few relatively stable democracies, having had a series of free and fair elections and two presidential turnovers since 1994. Every election sets something of a bar for what democracy might be in South Africa, and elsewhere in Africa. While Nigeria’s recent election was considered a fair one, it was also marred by episodes of post-election violence. And while there are no reports of violence in South Africa, increased police presence in certain areas is a response to perceived voter intimidation.
Second, the responsibility for “service delivery,” which includes vital outputs like water, electricity, sanitation, and community development more generally have been delegated to local governments. While the country is among the wealthier middle-income countries, huge inequalities persist, and large swaths of the country continue to be marred by truly unpleasant living conditions. If the poor are going to use their vote and the democratic process to improve the environment in which they live, surely the best near-term prospects are through local government.
Third, and I don’t want to over-state this, the political future of the country could pivot a bit on the fate of these elections. In particular, the Democratic Alliance (DA) is giving the ruling African National Congress (ANC) a run for its money in a few key areas including in the economic powerhouse province, Gauteng. The big question is whether voters will be able to actually remove poorly performing ANC councilors or, as is too often the case in post-liberation countries, the idiom of liberation begins to overshadow the mandate to govern well, and people are stuck with lousy, self-serving leaders. Polls are showing that at least in a few places, voters are inclined for some change. And if they act on this, the next question will be to what extent the ANC will take that message as a prompt for reform or political revenge.
Elections are scheduled for May 18. A guide is available from the Mail and Guardian