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Was the SA local election really about service delivery?

SA’s local elections are complete, the votes have been tallied, and not only has it been declared free and fair, but voter turnout was up, and party competitiveness increased, with greater movement towards a two-party system, rather than the reverse. Back in 2004, there was lots of talk of movement towards one-party rule, including this New York Times article.

What was unique about this election? Leaders and pundits, including President Zuma, are saying that the election was about “service delivery.” In other words, they are suggesting that people’s votes are a function of their levels of satisfaction with water provision, sanitation, roads, housing, etc. Well, there has certainly been more talk about these issues in the months prior to the elections, and a few years of protests about services. But it is far from clear that people with the worst services are the ones barking the loudest, or that those people are voting out the councils that provided those services. The notion that all citizens will use their votes to make politicians accountable, especially for using public resources for public good, is the great promise of democratic government. But the mere association of some isolated rhetoric about services with a somewhat more competitive election should not lead us to conclude that this dynamic characterizes South African politics just yet.  This summer, I hope to do a bit of analysis of voting patterns relative to service delivery to provide some answers to these questions.

About Evan Lieberman

I am a Professor of Political Science at MIT, and I conduct research, write, and teach about development, ethnic politics, and research methods.


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