If a ward falls in the forest…

25 November 2015

So, about the DA winning Johannesburg and Tshwane. You know, it might just happen.  I don’t think it will, but it could. Vague predictions aside, the DA’s future in the big cities is an important part of the story of municipal government – but it’s not the whole story. In fact, statistically speaking, it’s not even most of the story.

I want to crunch the by-election numbers to look at the DA’s successes and failures over the last four years. Like the ANC, it is more likely to publicise the former and downplay the latter.

What I want to focus on is not the wards and municipalities that the DA lost but the wards that the party didn’t even contest in by-elections. In my opinion these should also be added to the tally of losses.

There’s a pattern to these wards beyond the fact that political successes have many parents while political failures end up in the orphanage. The wards tend to be in rural municipalities across the country where the DA doesn’t have any real power base.

Well duh, you might say. All the parties tend to flood the market with candidates during a general election, even in wards where they’re more likely to win a toaster than a council seat. There’s PR seats to be won, maybe. So the DA contests neither Nkonkobe nor Nqutu during the election off-seasons. So what?

So…my point is that the metros are vitally important to local government. They dwarf the local municipalities in terms of financial and political power. But they have less than 40 per cent of the country’s population – under 20 million out of some 52 million.

That’s a lot, for eight metros compared with about 230 local municipalities. But it’s the minority of the population. Even if we throw in the 19 largest local municipalities (the so-called ‘secondary cities’) it’s still less than half of all South Africans.

The DA has sizable shares of the vote in most of the metros and secondary cities, but apart from Cape Town these are all minority shares. The metro story is an important one: Nelson Mandela Bay, Tshwane and Johannesburg are all up for grabs and all three metros are significant for a number of reasons.

But the ANC remains the only party that has a truly national reach, that contests literally every corner of the country. The DA is the best pretender to the throne but the party only contested about half the by-elections of the last four years.

You are unlikely to see this fact mentioned on the party’s website, but I bring it to you here with the help of Science and Excel.

There are 4 277 wards in South Africa. In the 2011 municipal elections the ANC contested 4 269 wards, or pretty much every ward in the country. The DA contested 3 849 wards, or 90 per cent of the total.

Think about that for a second. There was 10 per cent of the country in 2011 where the DA didn’t campaign, even for a share of the PR vote. There are many more wards where the DA did campaign but got a sliver of the vote. The party abandoned many of these wards in the by-elections where the PR vote doesn’t feature (barring exceptional circumstances like the dissolution of an entire municipal council).

Over the last four years 481 wards have been up for by-election, including uncontested wards. The ANC has contested 474 of these, or 99 per cent of the total. The DA has contested 237, or just 49 per cent.

Think about those numbers for a minute or two. The ANC still contests almost every ward available in the by-elections. The DA is involved in less than half the wards.

In the wards that the DA contests it generally does well. It increases its share of the vote in over 75 per cent of the wards, and it will tell you all about its successes. But the party chooses its battles very carefully.

These numbers tell you things that you probably already know, things such as the ANC’s absolute reach, the DA’s challenges in rural municipalities, and the party’s cost-benefit analysis when it comes to by-election campaigning.

And you might still say ‘So what’ because soon the metros and secondary cities will hold the majority of the population, and maybe some time after that the DA (or some coalition of opposition parties) will hold the balance of power in most of these urban areas. And maybe not.

In the meantime, the DA specifically and the opposition in general don’t have enough votes to run most of the large municipalities – and they’re nowhere close to running a majority of all the municipalities. Also in the meantime, most municipalities are still sorting out their messes, large and small. The messes will still be there after next year’s elections.


2 thoughts on “If a ward falls in the forest…

  1. Ricardo

    Dear Paul

    Hope you are well. You argues that we (DA) are a long way off winning in next year’s election since we have in the past 4 years not particated in all the by-election opportunities. Also, that we have not placed candidates in each of the 4277 wards in SA. And – although we have done well in the 237 by-elections in the past 4 years – there were infact 2x as many(481) and the ANC participated in 474 of these.

    Well, by-elections are unique and can – at best – be compared, in itself only. Any attempt to draw trends from by’s to LGE & NPE’s are dangerous. Fact is that general national voter participation since 1994 to 2014 has declined with 29%. Given the growth of the DA against this decline we have had major actual growth = only party with 5 consecutive electoral gains.

    Lastly, while one should be cautions in comparisons across classes of election types – one thing you can do is to ie interpret a NPE (2014) election as if it was a LGE (projected 2016) election….you have a surprise coming Paul?

    1. Admin Post author

      Hi Ricardo

      I’m good and you? The DA has shown impressive growth in the last few elections and it stands a chance of being in power (in some form or another) in some new metros next year. I completely agree with you there.

      There is still a big question the DA has to answer – is it growing fast enough beyond its traditional base? The trend of the last few years of by-elections suggests that the party is still struggling in rural municipalities, and even in ANC wards in the metros and secondary cities.

      I’m looking forward to the DA’s 2016 strategy. I’m pretty sure that Tlokwe is on the radar.



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