ANALYSIS | By-elections: DA on the ropes, but not ready to throw in the towel

Many a person in blue was in a good mood on November 7 when it seemed that the downward trend in the DA’s electoral support in by-elections had been halted.

In those by-elections, the DA retained Ward 2 in the Blue Crane Municipality in the Eastern Cape, including Somerset East, with 53.45% of the vote. In 2016, it got 59.09%.

In the by-election in the Msunduzi Municipality, which includes the regional hub Pietermaritzburg, the DA held its ward and increased its support with two percentage points from 44.04% in 2016 to 46.94%.

DA spokesperson Solly Malatsi at the time said the results were encouraging and showed the party resonated with many South Africans.

“We hope we can continue to build on this momentum going into the next series of by-elections.”

Fast forward a few weeks later, and that optimism seemed premature.


In three by-elections in the Western Cape – the province the DA has governed since 2009 – the party lost a ward to the ANC on Wednesday and saw a drop in support in two other wards. In the two wards the DA retained – Tafelsig and Wesbank – the party saw a drop in support of almost 20% from the 2016 municipal election results.

In Tafelsig, the party dropped to 64.02% of the votes cast, compared to 83.64% in 2016, with a voter turnout of 23.94%.

In Wesbank, the DA dropped to 49.28% of the votes cast, compared to 66.44% in 2016. Voter turnout was 21.75%.

In the Matzikama Municipality, the ANC won the ward with 51.30% of the vote, compared to 35.75% in 2016, while the DA dropped 11 percentage points.

“Disastrous,” elections analyst Dawie Scholtz tweeted.

1/ We have our first meaningful DA data post-Maimane3 By-elections in the Western Cape today, all in predominantly coloured areas:DA % in each: Cape Town (Tafelsig): 64% (-20)Cape Town (Wesbank): 49% (-17)Vredendal North: 39% (-11 and ANC wins ward off DA)Disastrous.

Scholtz also had two further points to make about the results: “A) Looks a lot (exactly) like the trend before the Maimane/Mashaba resignations,” he tweeted with reference to the former DA leader and Johannesburg mayor’s respective resignations.

“B) Looks a lot like DA numbers in the Western Cape in 2006-2009. So about a decade’s worth of brand building has been reversed,” Scholtz said about those wards.

2/ A couple of observations:A) Looks a lot (exactly) like the trend before the Maimane/Mashaba resignations B) Looks a lot like DA numbers in the Western Cape in 2006-2009. So about a decade’s worth of brand building has been reversed.

The general decline in support during these by-elections has had a bit of a run-up.

As the DA’s feud with then-mayor Patricia de Lille escalated last year, the DA saw a drop on average of about 9% in by-elections across the province.

In August, it lost a ward to the ANC in Johannesburg.

‘Deeply concerned’

Then came the September shock – in four of the five wards the DA held, in which by-elections were contested, its support dropped more than 20 percentage points, causing the party to lose two wards, one to the ANC and one to the FF Plus.

Many analysts have attributed the FF Plus’ strong showing in the May general elections to the DA’s more conservative voters’ dissatisfaction with the party.

In Wednesday’s by-elections in the Western Cape, the FF Plus was not really a factor, but the party De Lille started after her acrimonious departure from the DA, GOOD, showed solid growth during this by-elections compared with their support in the May general elections.

The DA, in a federal executive council meeting in September, said it was “deeply concerned with the results, especially where we have lost ground”.

John Steenhuisen, the DA parliamentary leader and newly-elected interim leader, told News24 on Friday that the “state of flux” the party had been in since May could have suppressed voter turnout, as would have been the events of the past three weeks in which Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba, party leader Mmusi Maimane and federal chairperson Athol Trollip resigned.

“I don’t think the state of uncertainty helped,” he said on Friday.

Steenhuisen described the most recent results as a “mixed bag”, taking pride in the victories in Somerset East and Msunduzi.

“The results tell us a lot of work has to be done to build organic trust in communities,” he said.

While these results indicate a party on the ropes, Steenhuisen is not ready to throw in the towel.

With the next municipal elections scheduled for 2021, he believes there is “more than enough” time for the DA to win back communities’ trust.   

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