In a properly functioning democracy, the general body of citizens has a way of reminding those who govern over them that they (the citizens) are the ones who ultimately exercise sovereignty. And if that democracy is worth its salt, the governors have no qualms accepting that reminder. And so it has been, that the outcome of the 2016 local government elections has been a reminder to the ruling party, the African National Congress, that its hold on power is not dependent on how long the Lord tarries but on how satisfied the voters are about its performance in government.
None would have thought that it would happen so soon in our young democracy that South African metropolitan voters would force the ruling party to a below 50 percent performance at the polls. But it has happened it is now public record that the ANC failed to garner more than 50 percent votes in Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay. Its early concession to defeat in Nelson Mandela Bay, even before the election results were officially announced, speaks to the health of our democracy. It does not happen often on our continent that the incumbents accept electoral defeat.
The fact that parties are currently busy negotiating coalition local governments where there has been no outright winner also points to our maturing democracy. Who knows? Co-governance could produce the best for voters when it comes to the delivery of services. My hope is that as the parties negotiate, they should place the interest of citizens first instead of focusing on who gets the biggest spoils. South Africa's democracy, the youngest on our continent, is a beacon of hope. Election outcomes in Africa are often accompanied by divisions and deep political instability. The political contours on the continent are littered with coups, counter coups and aborted coups because of the fragile nature of Africa's electoral democracy. The manner in which the Independent Electoral Commission has conducted the 2016 local government elections and the general conduct of the contestants would have made the founding father of our democracy, Nelson Mandela, proud.
But why did the ANC perform badly during these elections? Pundits have proffered their opinions and the ANC has itself just emerged from a four-day gathering where it sought to establish what could have gone wrong. I will throw in my penny's worth. The ANC in government has done exceptionally well. What it has achieved for the disenfranchised over the past 22 years it has been in power is short of the miraculous. In a metro like Johannesburg, where the ANC fell short of the 50 plus percent, service delivery is taking place and this is a well-run city.
Unfortunately, that track record has been marred by some blunders which loom large in public imagination and have chipped away at the integrity of the ANC. The manner in which the ruling party handled the Nkandla debacle left a bitter taste in the mouth of many and for that voters have punished it. This is unfortunate because what was essentially President Jacob Zuma's problem was allowed to metamorphose into an albatross around the ANC. The Nkandla narrative dominated political discourse for a long time and indeed paled into insignificance the party's own good story.
Ultimately, it would seem it mattered little how many houses the ANC government had built or how many people it had given access to water, the trust deficit occasioned by Nkandla mattered more with the voters. The same applies to the Gupta matter. This was President Zuma's issue but it subsequently became an ANC crisis. Suspicions of Gupta tentacles reaching into state affairs and seeking to influence the appointment of Cabinet ministers have also dented the integrity of the organization. The half-hearted attempt by Luthuli House to investigate this matter was a slap in the face of South Africans. It would be impossible that these issues, including the firing of former Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene and the collateral damage the country suffered, would not have featured in voters' decisions in these elections.
Following the NEC meeting this past weekend, the ANC has undertaken to visit all provinces and interact with various stakeholders to deal with the concerns of the people. I do hope that among the sectors it will speak to are religious groups. There have been instances in the recent past where the religious sector has reached out to the ANC to caution it about its seeming departure from our founding values. These cautions have sometimes been misinterpreted to mean that religious leaders want to dabble in politics.
One hopes the ANC, which remains the hope of the vast majority of South Africans, will conduct its listening campaign with candour but more critically respond with action to the concerns people will raise with it.