South Africa’s municipal elections scheduled for 3 August 2016 will take place in a highly charged political environment following recent developments. On 31 March 2016, South Africa’s Constitutional Court ruled that President Jacob Zuma had failed in his constitutional duties in refusing to implement the remedial actions ordered by the country’s most senior ombudsman, the Public Protector, who had ordered that he pay a percentage of the construction costs incurred in renovating his private residence in Nkandla, in KwaZulu-Natal province. South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), subsequently put forward a motion of impeachment in parliament on 5 April which predictably failed due to the parliamentary majority held by the ruling African National Congress (ANC). However, opposition parties, civil society leaders and even some high-profile ANC leaders past and present have continued to call for Zuma to vacate office following the Constitutional Court judgement.
On 6 April, a collection of civil society, religious leaders and high-profile ANC members and former leaders called for Zuma to step down and for a public mobilisation campaign to achieve this end. The group has called for nationwide demonstrations on 27 April 2016 – South Africa’s Freedom Day public holiday and the nature and organisational capacity of these leaders has some speculating that the demonstrations will be well attended.
Further, with the Presidency’s 6 April announcement of the 3 August election date, the electoral campaigning period has officially begun and the attendant demonstrations, protests and campaign rallies will likely get underway soon. Notably, the second largest opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), is expected to stage several large demonstrations and protest marches nationwide, particularly in urban centres. Clashes between demonstrators and police, and among various parties’ supporters, are not unlikely given the heightened political environment and the associated high stakes. Possible rival demonstrations in high-profile locations such as Parliament in Cape Town and the ANC’s Luthuli House headquarters in Johannesburg could also catalyse clashes.
In addition to the expected demonstrations, local elections in South Africa have historically seen parallel inter- and intra-party political violence and assassinations fuelled by patronage and high levels of dependence on political income. Further, labour unrest has reputedly peaked in pre-election periods as unions scramble to extract concessions from the government, with these municipal elections likely to encourage posturing by unions representing municipal employees.
Elevated political tensions are expected to continue throughout the campaign period as Zuma’s continued refusal to resign galvanises opposition parties to frame the municipal election as a national referendum on the Zuma administration. The concomitant risk of demonstrations will persist, with the odds of violence increasing in proportion to the levels of aggression shown by both demonstrators and the security forces. Clearly, the need for strong and decisive political leadership to ensure a rational response to national concerns is ever critical.