By-elections were held in 27-municipal wards across the country on Wednesday and just over half the elections were in wards the Democratic Alliance (DA) won in the 2016 municipal elections. Going into the election, the DA held 14 of the wards, the African National Congress (ANC) held 12, and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) one.

The ANC and IFP managed to retain all of the wards they held in the by-elections however, the DA lost almost a third (30%) of their wards to the ANC. The decline in DA support is a continuation of the pattern set by the 2019 National Election and other recent by-elections.

The seats the DA lost were Makana ward 12, Ekurhuleni ward 29, Msunduzi ward 30 and the hotly contested Hantam ward 5.

The DA was able to retain 10 of their 14 seats. The DA was able to increase their vote share significantly in Enoch Mgijima ward 10 (from 60% in 2016 to 74%), Ethekwini  ward 27 (77% to  86%), Ethekwini ward 31 (62% to 74%), Rustenburg ward 16 (60% to 73%) and Rand West ward 8 (46% to 55%).

However, these were gains were on the back of low turnout rates in DA wards. While turnout rates in by-elections tends to be significantly lower than in national elections turnout in DA-held wards was, on average 28%. By contrast, Wednesday’s turnout in wards held by the ANC and IFP was 34%. Although the difference is small it makes all the difference between winning a ward and possibly on retaining control of a municipality.

Other recent by-elections have highlighted the extent to which declining turnout tends to hurt the DA more than other parties. For example, in Makana ward 12 the DA lost to the ANC. In 2016 the DA won 68% of votes cast in that ward. Wednesday the ANC took the elections with 54% of the votes. The dramatic swing in fortunes is largely attributable to the abysmal turnout rate of 10%.

Between the 2016 local government election and the 2019 General Election, the DA reversed the trend of increasing vote share. The decline of vote share was then largely attributed to more conservative DA supporters defecting to the Freedom Front Plus and other small parties. However, the FF Plus and the smaller parties did not compete in any of the four by-elections where the DA lost to the ANC.

This suggests that the decline in DA support is not limited to conservative ‘traditional’ supporters who were able to find a who could find a new political home elsewhere. It seems that the DA has been unable to convince the traditional supporters that they have altered their stance since the disastrous General Election. The DA currently seems unable to attract significant support from new voters or persuade many of those who used to vote for them to come out and vote.

The question remains:  can the DA can undo the reputational damage well before the local government elections scheduled for 2021? If not the municipal coalitions they entered into in 2016 will continue to collapse.