23/12/2016 07:40 SAST | Updated 23/12/2016 12:57 SAST

2016 Was The Year The Opposition Outflanked The ANC

We haven't really processed what the results of the municipal election mean but, in any language, the ANC's loss of PE, Joburg and the capital is huge.

Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters
Leader of South Africa's Democratic Alliance Mmusi Maimane looks on next to Congress of the People leader Mosiuoa Lekota, ahead of a media briefing in Sandton, Johannesburg in August.


When Kglaema Motlanthe was president, between September 2008 and May 2009, he made a point of constructively engaging with opposition parties. Thabo Mbeki, his predecessor, detested Tony Leon, the then leader of the opposition, while Mbeki's successor, Jacob Zuma, humoured and mocked the opposition.

But 2016 was the year when opposition parties didn't need the validation of leaders from the African National Congress (ANC) or government. It was the year when opposition parties seriously dented the ANC's claim over the majority of the South African electorate, when collectively they secured more than 46 percent of the popular vote.

But more importantly, it was the year when the ANC was, for the first time, forced into the opposition benches in the metro councils of Nelson Mandela Bay, Johannesburg and Tshwane.

That's a major development.

Mmusi Maimane comes into his own

When Maimane replaced Helen Zille as leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA) there were real fears that his appointment might be a repeat of Lindiwe Mazibuko's tenure as parliamentary leader: a young, talented black politician who could have mass appeal as national leader of the largest opposition project, only to be undone by inexperience and internal wranglings.

But 2016 saw Maimane banish Mazibuko's ghost and take charge of the DA as his party, not Zille's. His speech in the National Assembly during the debate on Zuma's State of the Nation address set the tone for the DA's parliamentary line of attack for the year, a year in which they also had to contend with the Economic Freedom Fighters' (EFF's) particular brand of parliamentary debate.

The DA's year was squarely focused on August 4, the day of the municipal elections. Every appearance by Maimane and every attack on the ANC and Zuma had the elections as a target. In the end, the DA exceeded even their wildest expectations, securing the mayoralties of Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg and Pretoria while retaining Cape Town.

There was a feeling in the party that they should perhaps not gun for the executive leaderships in the two big Gauteng metros, with fears that they simply didn't have enough skilled staff to run those municipalities. The takeover of Nelson Mandela Bay has been in the works for more than a year - but Joburg and the capital were a handy bonus. But Maimane took the decision to take what's on offer – those prizes weren't to be rejected.

The DA's share of the vote increased from 23 percent in 2011 to almost 27 percent (more than 4 million votes) this year. This may not have been a spectacular outcome but it was a continuation of the trajectory since the 1999 general election.

The past year has probably been the party's best since 2009, when it won the Western Cape. There is no question that if the DA had not win Port Elizabeth, its claim to be positioning itself for national government in future would have been rubbished. The fact that the DA, with its coalition partners, now govern upcountry as well presents the party with a massive opportunity.

But voters have become smart. If the DA, as the mayoral incumbents, fails to deliver in the country's economic hub of Gauteng, they too will be punished at the polls, as the ANC was. It might be a poisoned chalice, but Maimane forced the DA to take a sip. Next year will be mightily instructive.

The EFF: A one-man band playing covers?

When the EFF, with its strident socialist manifesto, red overalls and bluster, arrived on the political scene in 2014, it shook up parliamentary politics and threw Zuma off balance.

But the EFF hasn't been able to convert its success from 2014 and 2015 into major gains at the polls this year.

Its tactics in Parliament – disrupting every occasion when Zuma speaks and engineering its own eviction from the National Assembly – was novel initially and drove home a point. But this year there was no innovation. Rather than augment their tactics, Julius Malema, Floyd Shivambu and Godrich Gardee repeated the party's past approach.

The EFF also hasn't been able to make its mark on the legislative process, a central tenet of parliamentary politics. Speeches, jousts and fisticuffs in the National Assembly make for good viewing and will score you a couple of retweets and likes, but the grind happens out of the view of cameras and social media, and in tedious meetings of portfolio committees. That's where contentious bills are changed and oversight happens. It's also where opposition parties get the most fodder.

The EFF hasn't been able to exploit these gifts, as evidenced by the lack of parliamentary questions posed to ministers during the course of the year.

Malema seems to be happier outside Parliament, where he has been successful in talking to the hot-button issues of land and race. But even then, the introduction of new legislation, proposals to amend laws or proper oversight of, for example, the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform, will do more to advance his cause than his speeches have done.

The EFF went into the municipal elections buoyant: after all, it brought the initial application to the Constitutional Court that forced Zuma to pay back some of the money he owed for construction at his Nkandla home. It was an absolute triumph – but the elections were disappointing.

After barnstorming the polls in 2014 – where they scored almost 1,2 million votes for a 6,35 percent share of the vote – this year the EFF showed only marginal growth, again getting 1,2 million votes for a share of 8,19 percent.

The groundwork was laid, society restless and the electorate ready but the EFF couldn't convert. If anything, it consolidated support without breaking new ground.

Malema and co's challenge next year will be to add strings to the EFF's bow. If not, it runs the risk of going the way of the Congress of the People (Cope).

Coalition nation

While the Inkatha Freedom Party clawed back losses from previous elections in 2016, especially in deep rural KwaZulu-Natal, smaller opposition parties on the national level have become fringe operators and bit players, catering for very specific interests.

However, these parties will have a crucial role to play in contested metro councils like Nelson Mandela Bay, where the DA leads a coalition made up of themselves, the United Democratic Movement, Cope and the African Christian Democratic Party.

The incoming coalition city governments have only just started apprising themselves of the state of play in those municipalities. The real test will come when budgets have to be passed and special interests need to be looked after. That's where the smaller parties' worth will really skyrocket.