EITHER city voters will get the ANC leadership they want by 2019, or the party may well no longer govern the country on its own. The ANC’s huge setback does not change the reality that, for a while yet, what happens in the governing party will shape politics here.

In depth: Local elections 2016

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The ANC still won double the vote of the next biggest party, the DA, and it is sure to remain the largest party after the next election. The key story of this election is that it is the first since 1994 in which ANC voters who were unhappy with their party stayed away rather than giving it another chance. These voters have not crossed to another party and may support the ANC in 2019 if it can find a way to win back their support.

All of this means the result’s effect on the battle to choose the leadership of the ANC at the end of 2017, and so to decide what sort of party it will become in the next few years, is crucial.

On one side is the patronage faction, which wants to use public resources to buy support — the people who gave us Des van Rooyen as finance minister. On the other, are politicians who take the market economy seriously, whether or not they claim to like it, and who made sure Van Rooyen was minister for three days only.

Their battle will decide, at least for a while, if the ANC is to be the party of the urban marketplace or of the patronage barons who take advantage of those who are excluded from it.

The two factions have very different ideas on how the ANC should react to a drop in support. Those who take the marketplace seriously want to win back city voters by convincing them that the ANC will listen to them and work for them. The patronage politicians insist this is impossible because black city slickers have turned their backs on the ANC forever. Their answer is to work with traditional leaders to make sure the ANC can rely on a block vote in the countryside to keep it in power.

According to a slew of commentaries, the ANC’s losses in the metros are likely to produce a "perverse" result, strengthening the hand of the patronage politicians. They will blame their opponents in the cities for losing municipalities, even though their actions are the reason the ANC lost metros. More important, if the ANC is weak in the cities and strong in the countryside, only the patronage politicians can deliver a majority. So, while many in the cities may rejoice in an election that placed more pressure on politicians to account to citizens, this joy will soon turn to tears as the ANC of the rural provinces takes over, making life miserable for people in the metros.

The election produced an unexpected twist, which shows that, contrary to these predictions, a victory by the patronage barons would be short-lived. The ANC not only lost votes in the metros, it lost them everywhere. In percentage terms, it lost less in Gauteng than in the North West and Free State, home to the patronage politicians of the so-called premier league. This shows that the urban-rural divide between voters is more complicated than it seems.

But it also shows that the patronage politicians’ strategy is a nonstarter because they cannot deliver the votes needed to keep the ANC in power if it continues to lose ground in the cities. The vote base outside the cities is shrinking, and is not big enough to make up for the loss of city support. And so, their dream of imposing a rural block vote on the country is doomed.

If the ANC enters the next election led by its patronage faction, it is unlikely to win 50%. If it can lose eight percentage points in the past two years because of this faction’s political style, it is hard to see why it cannot lose another five in the next three. The only way it can prevent this is to win back the voters throughout the country who stayed away last week — and that means electing a president who relies on reconnecting with voters, not handing out goodies and demanding obedience in return.

So, this election may have done more than show that politics has become more competitive. It may signal that the ANC’s patronage faction will either be rejected by the governing party — or by voters.

  • Prof Friedman is director of the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for the Study of Democracy