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OPINION: Jesus walks in PE. Why change is not elusive

There are a few jokes doing the rounds about Jesus being seen walking around in Nelson Mandela Bay. It was President Zuma after all who said the ANC would 'rule until Jesus comes'. Our president has never shied away from cheap rhetoric to garner a few votes.

Yet, he might not be laughing quite as loudly this morning or doing the 'dab'. The 'bread and games' of these elections, the T-shirts, the rallies and the posters seem not to have worked their usual charm as ANC support dips well below 60% in these elections. In the 2011 local government elections, the ANC secured 63% of the vote.

If the politicians didn't know it, these elections somehow felt different. There was a distinct feeling this time around that things were up for grabs and that our political axis could be shifted. It was not simply business as usual. The ANC, and Zuma in particular, mired in scandal and corruption sought to paper over the cracks in favour of false displays of unity.

But the stakes were not only high for Zuma and the ANC: The Democratic Alliance (DA) needed to demonstrate their ability to grow beyond their Western Cape ramparts and make good on their claims of being the only credible opposition to the ANC with a national footprint. Moreover, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) needed their performance to buttress claims that the party is not a one-hit-wonder, protest party. It needed to demonstrate substance and structure beyond the theatrics of Parliament, rhetoric and stadium rallies. The EFF has done predictably well in Limpopo, Julius Malema's home province where the ANC has also lost approximately 12% of the vote. Across the country at the time of writing, the EFF has been polling around 7.7%, slightly up from its general election result of 6.4% in 2014, which represents a modest gain relative to the party's ambitions. However, despite this almost static electoral performance, the party looks set to play an outsize role due to its potential kingmaker status in a number of high profile municipalities.

It has been clear for a while now that the ANC was going to make heavy weather of this election. Limited opinion polls turned out to be reasonably accurate after all and coalition government seems to be an important part of our landscape both now and in the future.

Despite not breaching the 50% threshold, the DA announced "victory" in Nelson Mandela Bay (NMB) on Thursday evening, and said it sought coalition partners. [Editor's note: 100% of votes in NMB were confirmed at 12:30pm on Friday, with the DA winning 46.71% of votes, the ANC 40.92% and the EFF 5.12%.] UDM leader Bantu Holomisa confirmed he has been approached. The historic and symbolic significance of NMB falling out of the ANC's grip has probably not quite registered fully with South Africans. The Eastern Cape, after all, is the historic heartland of the ANC. The party invested a considerable amount of political capital in the metro, parachuting in South African Football Association president, and he of 2010 FIFA World Cup experience, Danny Jordaan to lead the council.

Some will say that the imposition of Jordaan was too little too late, symptomatic of ham-handed, top-down crisis decision-making, and a general manifestation of the ANC's lack of preparedness for these elections. ANC Treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize admitted the party suffered losses because of its own 'internal issues'. Former ANC Secretary General, and former state president, Kgalema Motlanthe bemoaned that a party afflicted by "bogus" structures, had ultimately "lost the plot". Even Zuma, who too often held himself to be above the law, must feel the sting of this loss?

The DA has performed more than credibly, and has, again, successfully negotiated a change in leadership at the top of the party ticket while continuing to demonstrate growth at the base. The party's steady march has vindicated those who backed Mmusi Maimane's leadership of the party. It will seek to reinforce the narrative of a party on the march and present it with a significant stage to demonstrate its alternative form of government.

In the short term, the DA must, however, ask itself larger questions regarding the process of coalition building and the values that will underpin coalitions, beyond simply unseating the ANC. This will require political generosity and tolerance that is often missing in our political discourse. The coalition-forming process is likely to be messy, with moments of instability. The days and weeks ahead will test the DA, ANC and particularly the EFF's political maturity and nous. While the DA has a record of coalition building in the Western Cape, the outcomes of the 2016 polls leave us in somewhat uncharted waters.

These elections also raise fundamental questions about the nature and character of the ANC, and South Africa's urban-rural divide. Since the rebellion against the 'philosopher king' Mbeki, Zuma has assiduously worked his rural, traditional base. Under Zuma, the ANC has retained and strengthened its rural dominance, but has concurrently failed to nurture and build urban constituencies, to the detriment of the party's future. Evidence suggests that in many urban areas, suburban turnout was far stronger than that evident in the townships. But what this election has shown is that the ANC ignores its urban base at its peril. We are an increasingly urban society, and our future - political, social and economic - will be forged in the cities. Zuma has previously lambasted 'clever Blacks' who dared to question deepening corruption and state capture. Gwede Mantashe in a sign of desperation declared that, "Black people did not value their vote" as much as white people did. Has the ANC become so out of touch that it has become deaf to protest action and the dismal state of many municipalities? Opinion polls like the Afrobarometer demonstrate that 61% of citizens 'disapprove or strongly disapprove' of their local government councillor and that Zuma's popularity is at an all time low across all race groups. For many, not voting has become as much of a protest against the ANC as voting for the opposition.

South Africans have sent the ANC a powerful message ahead of the 2019 general election. The question is whether the ANC can draw on its depleting reserves to deal with the liability Zuma and his band of cronies have become to the party and the state? But more than that is the fundamental question as to whether the ANC is capable of renewing itself in line with the democratic, political and economic needs of the country? People have now said, albeit tentatively, that change is not an elusive concept.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february.

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