The Enigma of Rural Politics: A Puzzle for All Political Parties

Mosa Phadi, Joel Pearson and Thomas Lesaffre; Public Affairs Research Institute (PARI) | 2 September 2016

The recent election results have led some to argue that the African National Congress (ANC) is transforming into a rural-based party. Analysts see the ANC's immense losses in the metros as an indication that the party's stronghold is shifting to semi-urban and rural areas. Yet even a superficial glance at the election results calls this into question.

In the largely rural Limpopo Province, where the ANC has historically enjoyed massive electoral support, the party has dropped significantly from 83% in 2011 to 68% in 2016. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) made impressive inroads in the province, gaining 17% of the vote, while the Democratic Alliance (DA) grew marginally from 6.64% to 8%. South Africa is moving to a new phase of multiparty political competition, even in rural areas.

Our research during the elections in the Lephalale and Mogalakwena municipalities of the Waterberg Region of Limpopo teases out what political party support means beyond electoral percentages.

A new political consciousness is unfolding that poses challenges to the entrenchment of political party support. Political loyalties have become increasingly fluid and unstable.

The EFF's First Municipal Elections

In the Lephalale and Mogalakwena municipalities, the EFF experienced 20% growth in overall support. This was accompanied by an almost equivalent drop in ANC support (In Lephalale: 83% in 2011; 64% in 2016. In Mogalakwena: 82% to 64%).

The EFF pulls in support not simply because of charismatic leaders (some born in Limpopo): its ideology resonates with life experiences in this rural mining milieu. During the elections, self-professed EFF voters echoed some of the key pillars of the party's manifesto.

Calls for economic freedom and denunciations of white monopoly capitalism strike a chord with many whose principal source of employment comes from massive multinational companies.

For those who work, have worked, or have been denied work at the expanding mines and construction firms, questions of ownership, upward mobility and the increasing precariousness of casualised employment feature sharply in daily life. Many of those wearing EFF berets in the election queues in villages were sub-contracted construction workers recently 'demobilised' without many prospects of alternative employment.

From our observations, some of the key EFF organisers in this context are local activists, many of whom have been embedded in community and labour struggles well before the birth of the EFF. These actors have played a crucial role in translating everyday struggles into the language of the EFF.

Despite the EFF's growing presence on the ground - and its ability to fill massive stadiums - it has been unable to translate this neatly into unequivocal electoral support. The EFF failed to win any municipality in Limpopo, and its ward victories were slim.

The burden of the EFF's roots in the ANC limits its growth.

Malema's history of alleged self-enrichment and conspicuous consumption during his time as Youth League president still lingers amongst some community members - even within the ranks of the EFF.

In conversations with party organisers, some also admitted concerns about the top-down approach of the leadership style - many fear that the ANC's authoritative decision-making style is being reconfigured within the EFF. An EFF spokesperson encapsulated this concern: "The minute Malema comes here and wants to control us, and not listen to us, that's when I will start to fight the EFF. I support the policies of the EFF, not Julius Malema".

The DA's Meagre Growth

In contrast to its impressive gains in the metros, the DA increased by barely 2% across the municipalities in the Waterberg. It grew only slightly in Lephalale (12 to 13%) and Mogalakwena (7 to 9%) - and this growth was largely contained in the towns.

In the former "lily white" suburbs of these municipalities, residents arrived in numbers to vote. The presence of DA party agents was strong outside voting stations there. By contrast, they were virtually invisible in the rural villages. One DA councillor confirmed that the party had made a strategic decision not to erect tables outside of voting stations out of fear of intimidation. But the elections proceeded without incident here - accentuating the DA's disconnection from rural politics.

In these rural towns, there has been some marginal splintering from the DA towards the Vryheidsfront Plus (VF+). One councillor in our research site made a public conversion to the VF+ because she felt that the DA "did not take the interests of their traditional voters to heart". White conservativism persists, rooted in the fractious histories of these towns.

The Independents

Community-based organisations form an important part of the dynamism of local politics. Some of these have successfully entered electoral politics. For instance, in Bela-Bela and Thabazimbi, Residents Associations gained 4% and 8% respectively in these elections.

The Mogalakwena Residents Association (MRA) received 2% of the vote in this, its first election. The MRA is tied to factional battles within the local municipality. It has provided refuge for ANC councillors who were successively expelled by the party. Yet the organisation's activities extend beyond internal ANC matters: a number of service delivery protests were led by the MRA.

However, their electoral proposals are still rooted in local ANC divisions: they called for reinstating an expelled municipal manager (who allegedly funded them), and steering tenders away from particular ANC factions.

The MRA's decision to contest the elections splintered the movement, however. Some members wanted to remain as a community organisation aligned to the ANC - to reinvigorate it with the spirit of the "true ANC". Others rejected the ANC and sought an alternative political party. The elections brought these strategic and ideological antagonisms to the surface.

The Path Ahead

In one interview with a senior ANC official, he described the party's electoral victories in Limpopo as a "walk in the park". Yet these elections have shown that success in rural areas is not guaranteed to the ANC. But it will not be so simple for other parties to entrench and grow their support either.

The EFF are in a vulnerable position given their origins in the ANC and the leadership styles they have inherited. Yet this may present an opportunity to reimagine methods of rupturing the ANC.

The DA's history of conservative support in these small towns presents a tension between retaining their "traditional supporters" while at the same time find new ways of attracting black voters.

Independents like the MRA must retain their fidelity to community struggles, navigate their ties with the ANC, and also try avoid being poached by stronger parties in the practice of municipal governance.

These elections have shown that new strategies and methods will have to be employed by all parties to remain attuned to a shifting political climate.

Those entering council chambers must break with the practices that have become institutionalized elements of ANC rule in municipalities. They must navigate new paths of dealing with divisive factionalism, for example, which has led some municipalities to the brink of collapse and halted service delivery.

The supposed shift of the ANC's center of gravity from urban to rural areas is belied by the rise of the EFF, the growth of independents, and abstinence from voting altogether.

Political dynamism has emerged forcing political parties to rethink the 'business as usual' approach to local governance if they are to cement a base of rural support.