The number of political parties in South Africa has increased significantly from the 19 that participated in the first democratic election in 1994. Both 2011 and 2016 saw the number of political parties grow. But this year the number has increased exponentially.
Over 500 are currently registered with the Independent Electoral Commission. Over 300 will be participating in the November 2021 local government election. In addition, more than 1,500 independent candidates will participate in the poll.
Against this background, there are divergent views about the uniqueness of this election compared to the previous ones.
Despite the increased number of participants in this election, some see the race as still being between the African National Congress (ANC), which dominates the National Assembly and runs the country, and the two big opposition parties, the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).
A counter view is that the political landscape has widened, thus expanding the competition beyond the three major parties.
Based on my academic work as a political scientist and a historian who specialises in African historical and political issues, I think either of these positions is plausible. But I think it’s more plausible that the smaller political parties will upset the top three parties, given the changed political landscape.
The rise in political parties putting forward candidates, and the explosion in the number of independents, means it’s no longer simply a race among the three big ones.
Factors at play
Firstly, it’s important to remember that this is a municipal poll, not national and provincial elections. Local elections provide a platform for a wider range of political parties.
Secondly, the fact that the number of new political parties has increased significantly could mean that the plans of the three main parties are derailed. In the main, the new parties are formed by politicians who were once associated with the three main parties. Some even enjoy a good following.
In all probability, their supporters and their sympathisers might vote for them, drawing away votes from the big players.
Thirdly, the increased number of independent candidates poses a challenge to the three main political parties. Even if none of them attract a larger following, they might take enough from the three main political parties to deny them control of municipalities.
Depending on the popularity of the ANC, DA and EFF in a given municipality, independent candidates might win seats or simply take enough votes to deny any of the three main parties an outright majority.
Fourthly, with so many political parties and so many independent candidates, the prospect of coalitions in certain municipalities is a reality that cannot be ignored. While it is true that the ANC, DA and EFF enjoy more support compared to the other parties, there is a possibility that smaller parties could gang up against the big three to run some municipalities.
Fifthly, not all provinces are the same. In KwaZulu-Natal, for example, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) cannot be ignored. In fact, it poses a bigger threat to the ANC than the DA and the EFF combined.
Apart from the fact that the Inkatha Freedom Party has strategically retained its founder Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi as its face and a draw card, it has also benefited from the mistakes made by both the ANC and the National Freedom Party. The National Freedom Party did well in 2011 but did not participate in the 2016 elections.
Internal squabbles within the ANC and the National Freedom Party benefited the Inkatha Freedom Party in the 2016 local elections. Some of their members and followers did not vote or simply voted for the Inkatha Freedom Party.
While there may have been a slight change in each of these parties as they tried to regroup, the reality is that they are still not united.
On the other hand, the Inkatha Freedom Party seems to be sailing smoothly in KwaZulu-Natal. Therefore, in this election, it is likely to win more municipalities than it did in 2016.
Another factor which is hard to ignore is voter apathy. While it is true that many South Africans are either members or supporters of the ANC, DA and the EFF, the bad state of local municipalities – a lack of water, sometimes none, broken infrastructure and neglect – has dampened the spirit of the electorate.
Voters might just elect to stay away. Already, some have indicated that they will not vote due to lack of service delivery.
Another related point is that other political parties could win a municipality due to a combination of factors. They would count on their own members, other sympathisers who do not belong to any political party, new voters, as well as some disgruntled members from the three main political parties.
It’s therefore too simplistic to argue that the race for the 2021 local government elections is only between the ANC on the one hand and the DA and the EFF on the other. It remains indisputable that at national level, the DA and the EFF are the second and third largest political parties.
But when it comes to local elections, this trend isn’t guaranteed.