On May 18, South Africans turned out across the country to vote in local government elections. It was a minor milestone on the route towards a sustainable democracy, with many observers seeing the beginnings of a mature two-party system and the slow subsidence of race-based politics.
On both counts, credit is due to Helen Zille and the Democratic Alliance, the main opposition party nationwide, for shifting the discourse from racial identities to the delivery of public services, and for consolidating a primary vote (24.1%) higher than the combined non-black population of the country (20.5%). The once predominantly white, socially liberal party can now claim to unite a significant proportion of all major racial groups, represented by mayors such as Conrad Sidego (Stellenbosch), Basil Kivedo (Breede Valley) and Bazil Petrus (George), and most famously Patricia de Lille taking over as Mayor of Cape Town, South Africa's second-largest city.
The rowdier members of the ruling African National Congress have tried to maintain the party's grip on the black vote with threats of hellfire, and emotional blackmail, with youth leader Julius Malema crowing that former "President Mandela is sick and you don't want to contribute to a worsening condition of Mandela by not voting ANC." To counter this, the DA have had to hammer home the message that the election is nothing about identity and all about public services. Whatever the colour of one's skin, one ought not to deny that under seventeen years of ANC rule, little has improved in the provision of water, sanitation, electricity, etc., to fulfil the promises of the post-apartheid movement.
Service delivery has a special place in South Africa's democracy. The Freedom Charter, the political manifesto compiled by ANC leaders in 1955, made the provision of services such as housing, health, transport and community services one of the ten central tenets of a post-apartheid democracy. However, due to the currency of socialist ideals at the time, the writers imagined a very State-centric mode of delivery that few governments, not least South Africa, have the power or resources to achieve.
The 1996 constitution consecrated the task of service delivery to local governments, making them more central to fulfilling the promises of democracy than most constitutions ever envisage. In addition, the proportional vote used for the national assembly means that parliamentarians are not answerable to any local constituency but to the backroom bosses who compile the party lists. The local elections provide a rare occasion for voters to call politicians to account on the issues that most intimately affect their everyday lives.
So it is important for the health of the democracy that the DA insisted on a campaign making politicians accountable to voters, whereas the ANC tried to make (black) voters answerable to the party and its history. But this does not mean for a second that the DA know any better how to deliver services. This year's campaigns resurrected last year's shameful toilet wars, in which the two parties pointed fingers at each other for failure to construct enclosed toilets for residents in the DA's Western Cape and the ANC's Free State.
Neither party had the courage to simply make good on their duty to provide durable sanitation facilities to their constituents. The ANC's rank and file resorted to dirty games such as pulling down the makeshift enclosures provided by the DA, while the DA retreated behind the legal sophistry that residents had signed agreements to build permanent enclosures themselves.
The DA has a renewed mandate to rethink the service delivery models in its municipalities and implement a new provision strategy before the next local elections. But at that time it has to keep on-message that democracy is about policy outcomes and not identity. It will have to deliver on the detail, without getting lost in it and dispersing that key message. But half-hearted "participative" models, such as that where the municipality provides the cisterns and residents are expected to lay the concrete blocks around them aren't going to cut it. It's time to break the two-tier system, treat the poor and the middle class equitably, and start working out how to cross-subsidise between the two, instead of pretending that the poor can make up for years of injustice by shelling out for the costs by themselves.
That goes for a lot of other countries, of course. Whether or not South Africa can emerge from a politics of identity will have dividends for the rest of the continent, where racial and tribal divisions continue to distract from city leaders' complete failure to provide water, sanitation and energy to their constituencies. Success will be based partly on shifting the rhetoric of elections, but also on the delivery of real new models with lasting results. The DA has shown its creativity in reaching across racial divides; it will now have to apply that creativity to the funding divide and bring its cities' infrastructure into the post-apartheid era.