South Africa’s municipal elections: A referendum on political parties and local democracy

Supporters of the African National Congress (ANC) sing slogans ahead of the launch of an election manifesto at the church square in Pretoria, South Africa, September 27, 2021. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

On November 1, South Africans will go to the polls in the sixth round of local government elections since the country’s democratic transition in 1994. Voters will be able to choose among 60,000 candidates and more than 300 political parties to elect councilors for 257 municipalities.

Typically, local elections in sub-Saharan Africa rarely receive much attention. South Africa, however is an exception: Not only is it the region’s most decentralized country, so that local governments have substantive autonomy over services citizens care about, but it’s also a place where local elections are seen as a bellwether for party performance in the general elections. Notably, this electoral contest will be the first since the deadly riots that rocked the country back in July when supporters of the former president, Jacob Zuma, rebelled against his conviction for contempt of court when he failed to attend a corruption inquiry. In addition, with more than 60 percent of South Africa’s population classified as urban, control of the country’s eight large metropolitan areas (known as metros) provides both political leverage and economic clout.

How do the elections work?

South Africa operates a mixed member electoral system for municipal elections, meaning that half the seats on the councils are chosen through proportional representation—whereby the parties receive seats in proportion to the share of votes they receive—and half are chosen through a single-member constituency-based system so that individual candidates who receive the most votes in their ward gain their ward’s seat. In the metros, voters receive two ballots: one for a party and one for a ward councilor. In smaller cities and rural areas, voters also receive a third ballot to choose a party for a district municipality, which encompasses about four to six local municipalities and coordinates cross-boundary development issues. According to the Municipal Structures Act, the newly elected council then chooses an executive committee among their members, which in turn selects the mayor and deputy for the municipality. Compared to a system of direct elections for mayor by voters, this approach encourages more upward accountability to the party, causing the local elections to strongly reflect parties’ organizational capabilities and coherence.

Importance of the 2021 elections to South Africa’s political parties

In the 2016 elections, the African National Congress (ANC)—the leading political party since the end of apartheid in 1994—experienced massive local election losses for the first time ever. Some of the countries’ largest economic centers, including Johannesburg, Tshwane, and Nelson Mandela Bay, went to the opposition because the ANC could not obtain outright majorities and had to enter coalitions with other parties. Much of this shift could be attributed to the low popularity of then-President Jacob Zuma in the aftermath of the “State Capture” controversy and the “Fees Must Fall” protests across universities, as well as to the growing attraction of both the Democratic Alliance (DA) under the leadership at that time of Mmusi Maimane and the surprising endurance of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) under the populist Julius Malema. For the 2021 elections, a poll by the public opinion company Ipsos showed that 49 percent of respondents intend to support the ANC on November 1, falling from the 53.9 percent the party obtained in the 2016 contest. This number is still massively higher than the DA and EFF—which respondents claim to support at 17.9 and 14.5 percent, respectively—but depending on the distribution of those votes and seat allocations, could leave the ANC again scrambling to gain majorities in the coveted metros.

Will this contest largely amount to a referendum on the ruling ANC and more importantly, for Cyril Ramaphosa’s presidency? The ruling party has intense competing factions, including a divide between pro-Zuma loyalists who could be implicated for corruption, and pro-Ramaphosa supporters who believe internal party reform is critical for regaining citizen support. Already, such rivalries have affected the ability of the ANC to agree on candidates to represent the party across more than 90 wards. More worryingly, they’ve contributed to large-scale political violence and several killings, mostly concentrated in Zuma’s stronghold of Kwa-Zulu Natal province.

The anti-Ramaphosa faction may be hoping that a poor showing will hurt the sitting president and allow others in the party to justify competing against him in the party’s national conference next December. His deputy vice president, David Mabuza, already has announced his intentions to compete against Ramaphosa at that conference. However, control of municipal councils provides the ANC with a huge source of patronage—particularly via access to municipal jobs for local-level party branch members. Therefore, if rivalries among party elites cost the ANC control of major councils, especially the metros, it could affect the party’s ability to retain support among the rank and file in the 2024 general elections.

The electoral outcome will be equally consequential for the other two main opposition parties, the DA and EFF. The DA recently has faced a series of defections, including in 2019 by Maimane who created the Movement for One South Africa, and Herman Mashaba, the former mayor of Johannesburg, who established the Action South Africa party. Now under the leadership of John Steenhuisen, the party may not be able to break perceptions that it is mostly representative of white privilege and may not gain much ground beyond its traditional stronghold of Cape Town and the Western Province.

The EFF, which took away black votes from the ANC in 2016, could pose a bigger threat for the ruling party in Limpopo—Malema’s home province—and in Gauteng and Northwest. Reports indicate the EFF has gained much more financing for advertisements and handouts than were available in the previous local contest. However, the party’s growing popularity creates a challenge: Unlikely to win outright majorities in most councils, the EFF’s path to governing will rely on entering coalitions with one of the other two big parties. On the one hand, the party’s left-wing, nationalist platform contrasts sharply with the pro-market position of the DA. In fact, DA-EFF coalitions established after the 2016 elections ultimately crumbled in several councils because the two parties operate at opposite sides of the ideological spectrum. By the same token, Malema, who relishes attacking the ANC with his combative rhetoric and populist style, would be wary that a compromise with the ANC would alienate EFF supporters. On the other hand, without more substantive experience governing at the local level through such coalitions, it will be difficult for the EFF to gain widespread voter confidence in national elections.

Reinvigorating faith in local government

Perhaps more substantively than foreshadowing political parties’ electoral fortunes in 2024, the elections on November 1 are critical to strengthening local democracy and serve as a mechanism to encourage municipal governments to improve their performance. Based on recently released data from Afrobarometer that was collected in May-June of this year, close to 45 percent of South Africans claim they do “not at all” trust their local government council, and more than 60 percent disapprove or strongly disapprove of the performance of their elected local government councilor. Trust has declined over the last six years while disapproval rates remain stubbornly high (Figure 1). Moreover, South Africa continues to have the highest rates of distrust in local government across the continent, rivaling only more politically restricted regimes like Gabon, Morocco, and Sudan (Figure 2). This trend may paradoxically be due to the range of powers devolved to local governments combined with high expectations that voters have about their ability to deliver.

Figure 1. South Africans’ views on local government

Figure 1. South Africans’ views on local governmentSource: Afrobarometer, Rounds 8 (2021) and Round 6 (2015). Shares do not always total to 100 due to a small percentage of “don’t knows” or “refused to answer.”

Figure 2. Distribution of distrust of local government across Africa

Figure 2. Distribution of distrust of local government across AfricaSource: Author. Calculated from Round 7 of Afrobarometer (2018).
Note: Countries in grey are those where Afrobarometer did not collect the data for the corresponding round.

Unfortunately, in the last several years, many of the municipal councils have become financially insolvent due to poor budgeting practices and substandard revenue collection. In fact, a report by the country’s auditor general revealed that the situation of one-quarter of municipalities was so dire that it was not clear how they could continue operating. Overall, the report gave only 27 of the country’s 257 councils a clean bill of health. Moreover, the electricity utility, Eskom, recently claimed that the municipalities owed it approximately $2.5 billion and accounted for 10 percent of its total debt. These dynamics, in turn, help explain why service delivery remains one of South Africans’ major grievances: In fact, there have been close to 100 protests and demonstrations over local service delivery in South Africa just since the start of 2021.


Globally, local elections do not lead to high turnout, especially nonconcurrent ones—an often-surprising trend given that most citizens’ engagement with their government is most directly at the local level. Encouragingly, again, South Africa contradicts common trends as it historically has had turnout rates of close to 60 percent in the last two local elections, and the assessment by Ipsos also confirms high levels of voter intentions despite the pandemic.

If the reality matches projections, November 1 will surely be a turning point for all the political parties: solidifying allies and enemies for Ramaphosa’s faction of the ANC, testing the DA’s ability to become a national party without a black leader, and signaling the EFF’s willingness to govern rather than simply oppose. Perhaps more importantly, however, it will serve as a warning sign from South Africans that on the local issues that most affect their everyday lives, they will continue to demand and expect better from their politicians.