South Africa gears up for hotly contested local elections

Johannesburg, South Africa – Voters in South Africa will go to the polls on Monday to elect local representatives, and the ruling African National Congress (ANC) faces its toughest test since the end of apartheid.

South Africa’s constitutional court ordered municipal government elections to be held this year in September, rejecting a request from the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) seeking a postponement for fear that the COVID-19 pandemic would make it difficult to organize an election. free and fair.

“The vote will take place according to the ruling of the court, despite the challenges we face in conducting this election,” Glen Mashinini, president of the IEC, told Al Jazeera.

The shortened eight-week campaign period has left political parties scrambling to convince a skeptical electorate to back them in an election that will decide who will be responsible for the delivery of basic services like water and electricity.

The ANC, which has won every general election since the end of the white minority rule in 1994, but is embroiled in corruption scandals and political infighting, has vowed to reform and renew its offer to the population.

“We know that some of our advisers have become estranged. Others seem arrogant and unconcerned about the challenges our people face. This comes to an end in this election, ”South African President and ANC leader Cyril Ramaphosa told party candidates at the signing of a service delivery pledge in mid-October.

The commitment aims to ensure that representatives of the ruling party focus on public service and improve the ANC’s track record in local government.

“Having signed this commitment, it is your bond, your commitment. You must take it wherever you go, ”Ramaphosa said.

The ANC currently runs 176 of South Africa’s 213 councils, but is projected lose votes in many municipalities.

TO report from the National Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta) showed that most of South Africa’s municipalities face financial problems and are on the verge of collapse.

“You just need to travel to any municipality that is currently administered by the ANC and you will see that it is a disaster,” the leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA) opposition official, John Steenhuisen, told Al Jazeera.

“You will see people living in extreme poverty without any services, sewers running down the street, and electricity that is spotty at best.”

The DA currently manages 24 municipalities, including large centers such as Cape Town, Tshwane, home to the capital, Pretoria, and Nelson Mandela Bay, which includes Port Elizabeth.

He hopes to increase his presence as smaller parties also fight for votes, leading analysts to speculate that coalition or even minority governments could abound after the poll.

However, despite the fact that it is a municipal election, issues that are not related to local governance, such as the vacillation of the COVID-19 vaccine and xenophobia, have also been used as campaign tools.

Several parties across the political spectrum have vowed to avoid COVID-19 vaccine mandates or deport undocumented immigrants.

“False messages and half-truths are beginning to take hold in some corners of the campaign,” Ebrahim Fakir, a political analyst at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute (ASRI), told Al Jazeera.

“Where incorrect information is used to arouse emotions and get people to vote based on fears involving national issues that cannot be changed in a local election.”

Religion has also been widely used during most party campaigns, an unusual move in South African elections, with ideologically divergent parties promising a return to traditional values ​​and even the reintroduction of religious instruction in schools, another non-local government competence.

“The South African community is actually deeply religious. However, we have not seen this religiosity or religious conservatism really translate into party politics that we are beginning to see now, ”Professor Farid Esack, an expert on religious studies at the University of Johannesburg, told Al Jazeera.

Still, economic issues remain the most important for many voters in this election, especially among more than half of the population living in poverty.

“I have nowhere to sleep. But here in Johannesburg I realize that life is different now because of COVID-19 and politics. They promised us many things, we must vote but empty promises. They never give us anything, ”Johannesburg resident Zolani Maine told Al Jazeera.

And even those who are lucky enough to have a job in a country where the unemployment The rate has exceeded 34 percent are feeling the rush. Last year, the pandemic-affected economy slumped by 6.4 percent and this year, it is expected to recover by just 5 percent.

“The situation is getting worse every year,” Minenhle Mhlanga, owner of an electronics store in downtown Johannesburg, told Al Jazeera.

“It’s like nothing is easy. Business is slow: customers come and go, but people don’t work and no one has money these days. “

Despite mounting despair and discontent, analysts worry about low voter turnout.

“It is essential for economic growth to have basic services provided by the local government, but many communities have made progress,” said economist Sanisha Packirisamy.

“Whenever possible, people disconnect from the network and stop depending on services. Communities and companies do the work because municipalities have failed. “

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