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The Impact of Service Delivery on South Africa’s Local Government Elections

How the government's failure to meet its people's needs affects the political process.
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Poor service provision - protest

For the past few years, service delivery protests have been rife in municipalities across South Africa, with angry residents taking to the streets in remonstration against the poor performance of these municipalities. On the 18 May, South Africans will go to the polls to vote in the country’s fourth local government election. This election is significant in that the work of local government has a direct impact on people’s everyday lives and its performance affects their ability to function effectively. The municipalities, which make up this sphere of government, are mandated to provide basic services such as water and electricity.

In many instances the provision of these services has been very slow, and has not met the expectations of many residents, who perceive municipal officials to be self-serving and neglectful of their needs. This perception is given credence by the fact that officials have been investigated and found guilty of corruption. Last year, for example, the Minister of Local Government announced that 38 municipalities were under investigation for fraud and corruption. Some municipalities have also been put under provincial administration.

The run-up to this upcoming election has been marked by service delivery protests which have at times turned violent and led to the destruction of property. Angry residents of the Zandspruit informal settlement in Johannesburg, for example, blocked off a busy road and began burning tyres and throwing stones in protest against the lack of services in their community. This eventually led to clashes with the police. It is likely that similar protests will flare up as the election day draws nearer, with analysts predicting that more violent protests are in the pipeline. A recent survey based on interviews with metropolitan residents revealed that 51% of residents in these areas were unhappy with service delivery. Strike negotiators have stated that this very high level of unhappiness will “almost certainly” lead to violence.

This dire state of affairs has greatly influenced political parties' campaigning, with the issue of service delivery being seen as the most important in the upcoming election and forming the basis of political parties’ manifestos. In most multi-party democracies it might be anticipated that the failure of the ruling party to deliver the basic services which were promised, and are now expected, would lead the electorate to cast their vote for the opposition. This has not been the case in South Africa. Past election results show that the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has garnered the most number of votes and won every election by wide margins. This is despite the electorate’s obvious unhappiness with the slow pace of service delivery.

The lead-up to the 2006 local government election was also marked by widespread service delivery protests. In 2005 it was reported to Parliament that there were 881 ‘illegal protests’ and 5085 ‘legal protests’ across the country’s metropolitan areas. This led the Democratic Alliance (DA), which is the country’s largest opposition party, to declare that the protests were a sign of ‘dissatisfaction with the ANC’s mismanagement of the municipalities and its inability to deliver meaningful services’. The ability to deliver meaningful services, while obviously important, was not the determining factor for residents of the affected municipalities when deciding which political party to vote for. Despite the protests, and their obvious unhappiness, the electorate still voted overwhelmingly in favour of the ANC, which received almost 68 percent of the vote.

The upcoming local government election is occurring under circumstances which are similar to the previous election, in which the electorate vented its frustration at the slow pace of service through protests. A survey conducted before the 2006 local government election revealed that, in addition to voting, protests were also being used as a tool to achieve service delivery and were not necessarily a revolt against the ANC. Past election results not only highlight the loyalty that ANC supporters have to the party, but also the complexity of the voting dynamics of the South African electorate. The majority of the electorate have shown faith in, and remained loyal to, the ANC, with the opposition holding little appeal.

Looking at past elections, and their outcomes, it would be remiss of the opposition to assume that the current unhappiness with service delivery will lead voters to abandon the ANC. The ANC was a leading figure in South Africa’s liberation from apartheid and icons, such as Nelson Mandela, are still associated with the party today. As such it has a long and shared history with the majority of South Africans. This has created trust and a bond which will be difficult to break. Despite service delivery failures, the majority of the electorate still vote for, and trust, the ANC more than they do any of the opposition parties. The leading opposition party, the DA, is still largely perceived as being primarily for white English speaking South Africans. To  challenge the ANC seriously and be seen as a viable alternative, it needs to shed this image and attract a larger portion of the black electorate.

The results of all the previous elections have been very predictable with the ANC winning every election by a convincing margin. The upcoming local government election will in all likelihood result in an ANC victory. However, the ruling party should not assume that because of past election results and its shared history, the black majority will always vote for it regardless of performance. Many of the younger generation of voters, who were not directly involved in the fight against apartheid, do not display the same level of loyalty and trust for the ANC as the older generations. They will judge the ANC, and any other political party, on performance and the improvements they bring to their lives.

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