By-election winners and losers
By-election results are the best indicators of political sentiment and support apart from general elections. Since the 2016 local government election (LGE) there have been 527 wards contested in by-elections with 83 of these resulting in a handover from one party (or independent) to another.
That works out to about one in six wards changing hands in a by-election. These numbers do not include the near misses and close shaves for incumbents where wards are retained by a handful of votes, and so they don’t tell the full story of political contestation.
As the cliché goes, however, nobody remembers second place, and few headlines are written about elections and municipal councils that merely preserve the status quo. A few of the 83 wards which passed from incumbent to challenger were key to the breakup and reconfiguration of power structures across municipal councils.
The interactive Sankey diagram below shows the flow of seats from one party to another. Clicking on a particular flow will highlight the number of seats lost by a party on the left side of the diagram and gained by one on the right side:
The African National Congress (ANC) and the Democratic Alliance (DA) each lost 36 wards but the ANC won an additional 37 wards for a overall gain of one seat. The DA won just five seats, losing 31 seats on aggregate. The DA and the Better Residents Association (BRA) were the only parties to experience a net loss of seats.
At first glance it would seem that independent candidates have been the biggest winners, with a net gain of 13 seats, but the reality is more complicated. The Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) has been the most successful party in by-elections since 2016, losing five wards seats but gaining 12 and ending ahead by seven seats. The Freedom Front Plus (FF+, four seats), the Patriotic Alliance (PA, three seats), and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF, two seats) were also beneficiaries of the by-elections.
ANC losses: ‘Independents’ and the IFP gain in KwaZulu-Natal and Maluti-a-Phofung
The ANC lost 15 seats to independents, 12 seats to the IFP, five seats to the DA, two seats to the EFF, and one seat each to the National Freedom Party (NFP) and the Land Party (LP). These losses are split evenly between the periods before and after the 2019 national provincial election.
There were two significant by-election events where the ANC lost a clump of seats at a time, firstly to the IFP and secondly to independent candidates – who, as we shall soon see, were not that independent.
The Nquthu local municipality had failed to form a council and elect a mayor since the 2016 election, so in February 2017 the KwaZulu-Natal provincial government dissolved the municipality. All 17 wards (and 16 PR seats) were contested three months later on May 25. The IFP won four ward seats from the ANC and gained a clear majority in council, breaking the coalition logjam of the previous year.
In the Maluti-a-Phofung local municipality ANC factional politics led to the expulsion of 15 ward councilors (and one PR councilor) in 2019. All 15 former ward councilors contested the August 28 by-election as independent candidates and ten of these ‘independents’ won their seats back. The ANC still held an outright majority in the council but it was the heaviest by-election defeat for the party in years.
The expelled councilors subsequently formed a new political party in 2020, the MAP16 (or MAPsixteen) Civic Movement. The party contested another ward in Maluti-a-Phofung on 19 May 2021, winning 35 percent of the vote. It has subsequently declined the ANC’s offer to rejoin the party.
At least two other ward losses to independent candidates were again a case of ANC incumbents running as independents to successfully retain their seats. In summary, most of the trend of ANC wards falling to independents can be attributed to internal party politics forcing out ANC councilors only to lose to the same candidates who now run as independents.
The ANC’s losses to (and gains from) the IFP all occurred in KwaZulu-Natal municipalities, with the majority of the losses taking place before the 2019 election. In addition to the abovementioned wards in Nquthu, losses in Jozini and uPhongolo also shifted the balance of power the IFP’s way.
The ANC’s five losses to the DA did not result in wider losses in council, although the DA’s win in Hessequa granted the party an outright majority, obviating the need to partner with the FF+.
ANC gains / DA losses: effects on the Western Cape, Northern Cape, and metros
Most of the ANC’s wins – 26 out of 37 ward seats – came from DA wards, and the majority have come after the 2019 election. These DA losses have had an outsized effect on political control in a number of Western Cape municipalities, including Cederberg, Knysna, Matzikama, and Oudtshoorn. Apart from a coalition in Knysna the DA won outright control of these municipalities in 2016, only to be supplanted by the ANC over the next four years.
Two other trends emerge from the ANC winning wards at the DA’s expense: the DA’s loss of support in the Northern Cape and in large municipalities, particularly metros. The ANC put more daylight between itself and the DA in the Northern Cape municipalities of Hantam, Renosterberg, and Phokwane. The party also picked up eight wards in three metros (Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni, and Ethekwini) and two small cities (Emfuleni and Msunduzi).
ANC gains / IFP losses: power shifts and coalition politics in KwaZulu-Natal
The ANC’s five ward wins against the IFP, like the latter’s 12 gains at the ANC’s expense, have roiled the political waters in KwaZulu-Natal. The ANC gained outright control of Endumeni and forced the IFP into a coalition in Abaqulusi.
In the 2016 local election the IFP regained a lot of the ground it had lost to the ANC and NFP in 2011, including a number of municipalities in the northern half of the province. However, power and control were heavily contested across many municipalities and the party had to form a number of coalitions with the DA and EFF in those municipalities where it did not have a majority.
The relationship between the IFP and DA broke down in 2019 when the IFP abandoned its partnership with the DA in Johannesburg to support the ANC. This breakdown has had a ripple effect on the IFP-DA partnerships in other municipalities. Where the IFP has picked up ANC wards in by-elections, this has allowed the party to run certain councils without the need for coalition partners. But in by-elections where the ANC has gained ground the IFP’s problems have increased.
ANC gains: mopping up the BRA and the odd independent
The ANC won four wards from the BRA, all in Bushbuckridge municipality and all in the last seven months. The BRA, originally the Bushbuckridge Residents Association, was formed in 2011 by former ANC councilors. The BRA won seats in the Bushbuckridge council in the 2011 election and a seat in the Mpumalanga provincial legislature in the 2014 election.
The party won 14 seats in the Bushbuckridge municipality and one in Bela-Bela in 2016 but has since been in decline: it lost its provincial seat in the 2019 election and has lost four of the five Bushbuckridge wards to the ANC. The BRA did not even contest the wards.
The ANC won two wards from independent candidates. The first was in Knysna and the second in Ethekwini.
The DA has been the biggest loser by a country mile
Much of the DA’s story has been covered above: all five of the party’s wins and most of its losses (26 of 36 wards) involve the ANC. The trends already mentioned – the DA’s travails in the Western Cape, its lost ground in the Northern Cape and the metros – are confirmed and emphasised by the results in the other ten wards that the party has lost since 2016.
The DA has lost another four wards in Johannesburg, three to the PA and one to Al Jama-ah. In addition to the ward lost in George to the ANC, the party lost a second ward to GOOD and saw a once comfortable majority whittled down to just one seat. The icing on the cake has been a loss of four wards to the FF+ in Matlotsana, Mamusa, and JB Marks – all municipalities in the North-West province.
The DA’s base, built up over the last two decades, is crumbling at the edges. It is losing white voters to the FF+ and other minority voters to the PA, GOOD, and Al Jama-ah. About 80 percent of its by-election losses have come since the 2019 election.
Independents still struggle to make an impact
While the official scoreboard reads 15-2 in favour of independent candidates, the reality is more complex. We know that at least 12 of the 15 independents who won by-elections were former ANC councilors, so the real win-lose tally is 3-2 at best.
We also know from the results of the other 444 wards (the ones that did not change hands) that there were many more independent candidates contesting by-elections. Most of them won negligible shares of the vote.
The emergence of the MAP16 party is a welcome addition to the political space but its founders benefitted from their incumbency and track record with voters; there remain few opportunities and successes for homegrown independent candidates.
There is clearly a need for independent councilors and some of this need is being met by new parties and movements that are rethinking the relationship between candidates and voters. ActionSA, for example, allows anyone to vote on its website for their choice of independent candidates.
A return to the past or an uncertain future?
What can the election results of the last five years tell us about the 2021 LGE?
Firstly, they confirm that certain parts of the country remain competitive. The ANC swept northern KwaZulu-Natal in 2011 and the DA’s blue wave rolled over most of the Western Cape in 2016, but neither party has sustained those earlier successes and both have lost ground in recent by-elections.
Many muncipalities in these areas are too competitive to predict. There is a high probability of more coalition governments and an outsize role for small parties.
Secondly, the DA’s longer-term growth is jeopardised. A large part of this growth has been from the absorption of smaller parties but recently the flow of voters has been in the other direction. The largest loss was to the FF+ in 2019 but many other by-election losses followed the general election.
If one municipality illustrates the DA’s plight, it is the City of Johannesburg. The party has lost seven wards in the metro, losing significant support from coloured and Indian voters.
After its stellar performance in 2016 the DA controlled four metros and the majority of the Western Cape local municipalities. Its chance of replicating those results looks slimmer with every by-election.
Lastly, independent candidates still have a torrid time of elections. The ANC’s unresolved factionalism is still responsible for the largest number of independents and grassroots candidates struggle to make an impact.
The 2021 LGE is likely to result in more fracturing of the vote, more coalition politics and potentially more instability.