On Wednesday, South Africa heads to the polls to determine whether its ruling party — the African National Congress — will remain in power for another five years. After overturning apartheid, the ANC took office in 1994 with broad support. After years of dominance, the ANC’s image has been battered by corruption scandals and public dissatisfaction with government services. The ANC still leads nationwide polls, with as much as 60 percent support.
But the ANC’s political control has begun to falter, especially in urban areas. In 2016, opposition parties took local power in every major city except Durban. This has raised expectations that urban voters may abandon the ANC even further in future elections.
Will urban voters keep up the pressure for political change in South Africa? My research suggests they may not, as I’ll explain below.
Many believe that urban voters are more likely to hold politicians accountable
South Africa has long been among Africa’s most urbanized countries, with two-thirds of its population living in cities. But the rest of the continent is catching up. Since 1990, sub-Saharan African cities have expanded by more than 300 million people through a mix of migration and natural increase. Africa is now the world’s fastest-urbanizing region.
And as in South Africa, cities in several African countries have been key bases of opposition support. That’s in keeping with conventional wisdom that urbanization is making major political change more likely across the continent.
As cities have grown, Africa’s middle class has ballooned. Many observers expect middle-class voters to push politicians to better deliver on policy promises — instead of voting based on patronage or ethnicity.
Journalists can be especially optimistic. Africa’s emerging urban middle class has already been heralded as an “agent of change,” unwilling to “put up with business as usual.” Middle-class voters are portrayed as “enlightened” and more likely to vote according to policies and issues.
Many also expect African cities’ high rates of ethnic diversity to help undermine ethnic politics. After decades of rural-urban migration, some argue that greater social contact and interethnic assimilation in cities will reduce the political role of ethnicity.
My research suggests that’s not necessarily going to happen
My new book examines these two transformations in Ghana, another leading African democracy where most of the population now lives in cities.
What I found suggests that Africa’s growing cities may not transform the continent’s politics. At least, that’s not what’s happening in Ghana.
It’s true that Ghana’s urban middle class makes different demands on politicians compared with rural voters and the urban poor, seeking major policy reforms that will improve overall governance rather than narrow patronage benefits that address their immediate needs.
But even though Ghana’s urban middle class has grown substantially — now composing as much as one-quarter of the population in the country’s largest cities — politicians aren’t addressing the middle class’s new demands. Patronage politics continues as before.
And most urban voters still vote for the parties aligned with their ethnic groups. This includes middle-class voters, as well as those who do not report that ethnic identity is important to their daily lives.
Elections in urban Ghana appear to be a caught in a trap, rooted in two keys ways in the weakness of the Ghanaian state.
First, the state’s persistent inability to successfully implement major policy reforms — because of budget shortfalls, understaffed bureaucracies and endemic corruption — hurts the credibility of politicians’ policy promises.
Many urban middle-class voters do not believe that any party can or will address their policy demands, regardless of what’s promised. Politicians recognize that this makes it hard to woo middle-class voters — and so they disproportionately stick to mobilizing the poor with patronage.
Because they don’t trust politicians, and many politicians aren’t trying hard to win their votes, some urban middle-class voters are staying out of politics. They are less likely to turn out to vote than the poor and are also less likely to join political parties or participate in civil society. But as the middle class stays home, politicians face even less pressure to move away from patronage.
Second, with cities growing so quickly, underfunded urban governments cannot possibly meet all their residents’ needs for public services like clean water, good roads and schools, and effective security. Even in many more-prosperous urban neighborhoods, basic public services are missing or underprovided.
This gives politicians leverage. They have discretion over who gets these hotly demanded resources and — crucially — who does not. Scarcity perpetuates opportunities for patronage-based politics.
In turn, patronage sustains ethnic favoritism and ethnic voting. Many urban residents — even in the middle class — still believe that whether they get basic services from the government depends on the ethnic composition of their neighborhood. This creates incentives to keep voting based on ethnicity.
State weakness rarely goes away quickly. But until the state catches up, Africa’s cities may not produce the political changes that many expect.
What can Ghana tell us about South Africa?
My research on urban Ghana cannot speak directly to South Africa. The two countries have different types of political parties and electoral systems and different histories of class and ethnic politics. What’s more, South Africa already has a comparatively stronger state, one that’s better able to execute its policy objectives.
But because there are still important parallels between the two cases, my book provides some general lessons. Most notably, South Africa’s national and local government have also been unable to deliver essential services in cities, as we can see in widespread shortages of urban housing and a recent electricity crisis.
Recent studies by political scientists Roger Southall and Robert Mattes also suggest being cautious about whether South Africa’s emerging black middle class will transform the nation’s politics. Much as I find for Ghana, Mattes concludes that the country’s black middle class is withdrawing from politics compared with the urban poor, rather than mobilizing for political change.
These parallels suggest that South African cities may not consistently oppose the ANC. And even if cities keep growing, that probably won’t be enough on its own to undermine the patronage practices and ethnic voting that have helped keep the ANC in power for so long.
Noah Nathan is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan.