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South Africa’s 2021 local government elections are set to go down in history as a watershed moment in the country’s politics. Electoral support for the African National Congress (ANC) dropped below 50% for the first time since the party ascended to government 27 years ago. Although it won 161 of the 213 contested municipalities, the number of councils without a clear majority of any party nearly quadrupled from 18 to 70.

A significant portion of voters stayed away from voting stations. Most were former ANC voters, continuing the trend from previous elections.

Counting all eligible voters rather than only those who registered, voter withdrawal has reached a critical level. Less than a third of eligible voters — 12 million out of 42.6 million — made their crosses. Rather than apathy, this represents a “deliberate” stayaway vote, as the political analyst Moeletsi Mbeki has argued.

This concerted withdrawal should be read against the results of a recent survey by Afrobarometer, an independent pan-African surveys network. It found that local councils garnered the least trust out of 17 institutions in South Africa.

Almost three-quarters — 72% — of respondents trust local councils “a little or not at all”.

This staggeringly low level of trust has to do with deepening socioeconomic misery. The South African economy was in recession before the COVID-19 pandemic. The economic destruction caused by the pandemic has pushed the unemployment rate to 44.4%, when using the expanded definition that includes jobless people who have ceased seeking work.

The everyday struggle to survive becomes even harder in the face of a terminal deterioration in the provision of basic services by municipalities, such as water and sanitation, combined with corruption and infrastructural collapse that pose further threats to lives and livelihoods.

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