COVID-19 Could Impact South Africa’s 2021 Local Elections

The coronavirus and the lockdown have disrupted almost all forms of daily life – and are likely to have an impact on next year’s local government elections.

While there is no formal public discussion as yet about whether the 2021 local government elections will be postponed, it is possible there will be some material disruption. The dynamics of our politics leading up to those polls will be affected by the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and how the lockdown plays out.

So far, no national government or electoral official has said that the polls will be postponed. But already by-elections for councillors in different parts of the country have been delayed. 

The five-year term of the current council administration ends in early August 2021. Legally, a new election must be held within 90 days on either side of the last election date — 3 August 2016 was the last municipal poll — which takes the latest possible deadline to the start of November 2021.

If an election can not be held by that time, it would be a first in democratic South Africa’s electoral history. Parliament may be asked to consider an intervention to allow for special circumstances. 

While the Municipal Structures Act allows the co-operative governance minister to set an election date after consultation with the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC), that date must fall within the 90-day window. And although the Local Government Municipal Elections Act allows for the postponement of an election, that delayed date must still fall within that 90-day window.

Some parties may want a delay, others may not, and that could lead to more political problems and friction.

Another option is for the Constitutional Court to be asked if it can authorise an election outside the constitutional timeframe. This may be a quicker and easier option. 

But it may pose a problem for the ConCourt. 

Judges are not supposed to “make law” but to interpret law. To allow, or authorise a late election would surely be seen as “making law”. To postpone a constitutionally mandated election is a very significant decision. Judges may well feel that they don’t have the power to do so, as this would be  Parliament’s responsibility.

A third possibility is that an application to the high court could be made. 

Either way, all of the political parties registered at the IEC would get the chance to make their arguments. But if that were to happen, and just one party to the case were unhappy with the outcome, it would end up in the Constitutional Court anyway. 

All of this has the potential for very real discord and multiple frictions. Other arguments could come into it, including the long-running debate in the ANC about whether local elections should become a part of the national and provincial elections. 

(It’s hard to know where the ANC is on this at the moment. When he was secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe said that elections every 2½ years would help to keep the party unified.)

Current events will have an important impact on the campaigns leading up to the elections, and on the final results.

In 2016, famously, the ANC lost outright control of Joburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay. There is enough evidence that one of the main drivers for this was not only the state of those cities (although it must have played an important role) but national politics. The figure of Jacob Zuma, as president at the time, hung over that election and its results. Who could ever forget the sight of four young women standing in front of  Zuma as the results were being declared, holding up placards asking people to remember the woman he was accused (and acquitted) of raping? 

The world and our politics appear to be moving faster than ever. Vladimir Lenin’s dictum that “there are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen” did not feel more true than, well, in decades. That said, it seems reasonable to assume that it is possible these elections will be seen as a referendum on the government’s response to the coronavirus. 

They will, in some ways, be a judgment of the lockdown and whatever further transpires.

This may prove a difficult terrain for all parties. If the economic damage caused by the lockdown matches the projections (which range from the Reserve Bank’s prediction of a 6.2% contraction in GDP to Business for SA’s suggestion of a 17% contraction) everyone will be poorer. And angry. And frustrated.  

The vote could turn into a protest against “all parties as we know them”. 

As people become hungry, tensions between different groups will rise. There are already signs that this is happening as different views on the lockdown emerge. By then, these tensions could be much more stark.

Elections have a tendency of magnifying differences between people, and politicians tack to certain constituencies. If the middle classes continue to criticise Co-operative Governance Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, for example, the claim that these attacks are based on racism and not on her expertise/delivery could gather steam. This would make the elections more difficult than those in the past.

It is also possible that an election is held that raises social tensions and results in a very low poll. This may be legally legitimate, but not in the national interest.

At the same time, the ANC might be concerned that as the more establishment party, the one in power, it could lose the elections. The DA may feel it has not had time to fully sort out the internal differences (both its policy conference and its leadership conference have been postponed). The EFF has been almost silent during the lockdown and may believe it would struggle to regain any momentum it has lost. 

Hence, the three major parties may not oppose a postponement of the polls.

However, that won’t solve many of the problems that exist in the local government sphere. 

There have been moments of complete chaos in three of the big metros. Joburg is run by the ANC, but only just, after Herman Mashaba’s resignation as mayor. The ANC-governed province of Gauteng took over the DA-led administration in Tshwane, before a court overruled that decision. Nelson Mandela Bay still has an acting mayor and saw a collapse in services during the time that the UDM’s Mongameli Bongani was mayor. It is also about to run out of water.

Any delay in elections means all of those problems remain. The sooner all of this is resolved the better.

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Sources: [1], [2]. Image sources: [1], [2].