ACROSS from Beauty’s Hair Salon (“Dark and Lovely”), the residents of Diepkloof, a neat working-class district of Soweto, a sprawling black township outside Johannesburg, queued up patiently in autumn sunshine outside Dumezweni Primary School to vote in South Africa’s third municipal poll since apartheid ended in 1994. For the first time since then, the all-powerful African National Congress (ANC) was challenged by an opposition party able to point to its own perky record in local government and contrast it with the ANC’s fairly dismal one.
As counting continued on May 19th, preliminary results were hard to gauge. The opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), led by Helen Zille, a former Cape Town mayor and now premier of the Western Cape, seemed set to improve sharply on the 15% it won in the last local polls in 2006. The ANC’s tally, though down from its previous 66%, was still expected to top 60%. Jacob Zuma’s chances of serving a second term as the country’s president would dip if it had done worse. Neither the Congress of the People (COPE), a splinter of the ANC, nor the once formidable Zulu-dominated Inkatha Freedom Party seemed sure to survive, as their share of the poll plummeted.
Ms Zille, a white former anti-apartheid campaigner and one-time journalist, fought a jovial and energetic campaign, shining a light on the DA’s efforts to bring better services to cities such as Cape Town. Her party has also begun to win more votes across the racial divide. Though its supporters are still mainly white, a third of its 60 members of parliament are now black or coloured (mixed-race), as were many of its candidates in these local polls. It recently joined up with the Independent Democrats, led by Patricia de Lille, a coloured former trade unionist. She is set to take over as mayor of Cape Town, the country’s biggest city, where for the first time the DA won a majority of the vote.
The ANC’s campaign, by contrast, was lacklustre. In control of nearly all of the country’s 284 municipal councils, it found itself on the defensive in the face of growing criticism of the party for corruption, nepotism and incompetence in local government. Though basic public services are in fact steadily improving, two-thirds of South Africans say they are unhappy with the standards in their particular community. In more than a third of municipalities, the leadership and financial management are considered so poor that the auditor-general has recommended government intervention. In one recent poll, almost one in two voters said he or she would not vote for the same party as in the 2009 general election—which generally meant the ANC.
In desperation, Mr Zuma and other ANC leaders began warning people that if they deserted the country’s liberation party, “the ancestors” would turn against them and they would be dogged by bad luck until they died. A vote for the DA, they were told, was a vote for a white-supremacist party “hell-bent on treating black people as subhuman” and on bringing back apartheid. But a growing number of non-white South Africans are no longer willing to believe such fantasies. The ANC will still dominate at all levels of government. But the DA is snapping at its heels.