The problem with metropolitan cities, or subways, is that, even in the best of cases, they are terribly difficult to govern. By meters I mean large, complex and dynamic urban agglomerations that are internationally recognized as metropolitan. In South Africa, the definition includes small agglomerations of Buffalo City (on the east coast) and Mangaung (in the central interior).
In at least five of the six largest metropolitan areas in South Africa, the challenges of governing are compounded by political fragmentation and the uncertainties of governing as a minority or through a coalition. A host of new mayors are about to take office after local government elections.
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The new mayors of these metropolitan areas may have received a poisoned chalice.
The difficulties to govern rest in at least two realities. First, the metropolitan areas are the local government in general, and the local government deals with immediate and concrete problems that cannot be obfuscated in the generalities of the policy. If a national department falters, the flaws can be hidden for a long time through political bravado. If local government fails, the consequence is visible and directly affects the lives of residents. The local government has nowhere to hide.
Second, metropolitan areas are complicated because their citizens are opposites. They are, on average, more aware of their rights, more informed and educated than elsewhere, and less likely to vote based on historical loyalties. Media attention is generally intense and interests are diverse and changing, making it difficult for a single party to maintain a dominant position for long.
In South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC) celebrated five of the six meters for more than two decades. But as their electoral support waned, large metropolitan areas were among the first to fall.
Subways can be a graveyard for political ambition. But if parties or individuals succeed in the politics and practicalities of ruling a metro, the rewards are considerable. A meter can be a springboard to national power.
The recent municipal elections in South Africa have amplified the trends at play since at least the municipal elections of 2011. It has revealed more clearly than before a changing political geography with consequences for the character and prospects of the major parties, including the ANC.
In Japan, the Liberal Democratic Party has dominated national politics since 1955 and there are enduring electoral loyalties. However, an independent candidate was chosen Governor of Metropolitan Tokyo.
In India, the National Capital Territory of Delhi rejected the country’s two dominant parties, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata and the Congress Party, and voted in favor of Aam Aadmi Party (literally translated as the Party of the Common Man) in power.
In Tanzania, the dissonance between national and metropolitan politics led to President John Magufuli to dissolve the Dar es Salaam City Council in February 2021.
In Russia, Vladimir Putin United russia battles to retain control of Moscow and St. Petersburg, which is gradually dragging the fate of the party.
More positively for political ambition, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Boris johnson He was able to use his post as Mayor of London to achieve a high national office, and in a different political system, Jiang jemin, advanced from mayor of Shanghai to national president.
The fickleness of metro voters presents a political risk, but it also requires political formations to remain nimble with potential long-term advantage. A rural base with loyal voters does not have this effect. In the 1987 general election, South Africa National Party suffered erosion in its subway base. Wynand Malan, Dennis Worrall, Esther Lategan and others left the party and took voters from the subway with them. This helped catalyze a pragmatic response from a faction of party leaders. But the party never recovered.
The changing political geography
South Africa’s municipal elections of 2021 reveal a big difference in the geographical base of the parties. About 37% of the South African population lives in the six major metropolitan areas. But these municipalities only counted 27% of voters in 2021.
This reflects the degree of alienation in metropolitan areas.
The population in secondary school, or intermediate cities, is 9%, followed by large cities with 16% and rural and small cities with 38%.
If a party receives significantly more support from one of these categories than the proportion of the population, then it has established a geographic base within this category.
Over time, that foundation can shape the character of the party. A party with a metropolitan base may be more oriented towards social liberalism, as voters engage with diversity on a daily basis. But this is not always the case. One response to ethnic diversity can be a populist embrace of xenophobia or a retreat into some form of sectarianism. A party may be dual-based, metropolitan and rural, for example, and while this allows for a larger pool of potential voters, it also increases the complexity of its internal politics.
The ANC’s political base is now the rural Eastern Cape and Limpopo, followed by Mpumalanga and North West, reflecting loyalties in rural areas. The exception is KwaZulu-Natal, where the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) has returned in the north and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have made progress in the south.
Over time, this is likely to change the orientation of the ANC and further reduce its ability and willingness to engage with the intensity of metropolitan dynamics. Furthermore, policies may eventually change to reflect your more traditional and conservative base.
The Democratic Alliance (DA) is a metropolitan party with 58.5% of its electoral support in 2021 coming from the six great meters. Its secondary base is the large cities of the Western Cape, with forays elsewhere, such as KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. The biggest challenge for the DA is the narrowness of its base within metropolitan areas, where it is still predominantly supported by white people.
Only 33% of EFF support comes from the meters. His support in the Gauteng subways continues his support at the national level, with support from the significantly underrepresented party in Cape Town and Nelson Mandela Bay. Their greatest support in proportional terms comes from and around Polokwane, although there was some decline here, and the industrial cities of Mpumalanga and the northern Free State. There is no red wave for the EFF in the meters.
Among the smaller parties, the IFP is rural-based, with only 13% of its support from large metropolitan areas, although the 2021 elections indicated a slight increase in its support within eThekwini and Johannesburg.
Action SA is currently 100% metro and it remains to be seen where it will broaden its base in a bid for national power. The FF + has an urban base, but much of it is in the industrial and mining periphery of Gauteng, in Vaal, West Rand and Mpumalanga Highveld, rather than in the core of the metro.
The geographical base of a party is important, although it intersects with other dimensions of a political base such as class, race, age and gender. The vote from rural areas and small towns cannot be ignored, as 38% of the electorate is significant. There are also strong links between rural and urban in South Africa, and geographic concerns cannot be easily separated. In addition, having a metro base is risky due to the complexity of governing at this scale in the face of a demanding electorate. However, moving away from metropolitan areas can pose a serious risk to long-term prospects, as a party is separated from a potent source of political vitality.
The ANC must be careful.