The realignment of politics in South Africa has been underway for over a decade. The process will accelerate significantly during the years ahead.

Its outcome will be a two party system in South Africa, where power can change hands peacefully through the ballot box, and politicians can be held to account, because voters understand the power of their vote.

The nucleus of one of the two major parties is the Democratic Alliance. The other is the ANC.

And discernibly, at an accelerating pace, power is shifting from the latter to the former.

Sometimes realignment happens in big steps – such as a split in the ANC or the merger of two opposition parties, such as the DA and the Independent Democrats.

Sometimes it occurs in tiny steps that are imperceptible to most voters. But cumulatively, over time, we reach a tipping point, and the ruling party is beaten in an election. This has already happened in many municipalities in South Africa, and in the Western Cape Province.

As the process accelerates, it is useful to join the dots, to see the pattern emerging. Three prominent “dots” appeared in very different parts of South Africa, where by-elections were held last week:

In Thaba Chweu, Mpumalanga; in Thembelihle in Hopetown, Northern Cape, and the third in QwaQwa. Just six months ago, in the local government elections, all three wards were comfortably won by the ANC. Now other parties control all three.

What difference does a by-election make? What a by-election is, and why it is held between elections.

The explanation is this: All local governments comprise wards, where councillors are directly elected by the voters. If one of these ward councillors vacates a seat, for whatever reason, a by-election must be held in that ward.

By-elections can show trends in voter support, and over time, a by-election trend can gather momentum until it becomes a torrent. This is what happened in the 1990s, for example, when the Democratic Party began to win by-elections against the former New National Party.

These by-elections – the last of 2011 – will come to symbolise a turning point in our politics. A growing number of staunch ANC supporters are becoming increasingly comfortable voting for opposition parties. This shows our democracy is maturing. This shows we are increasingly moving away from “race” as the dominant fault-line in our politics, and focus more on principles, policies and delivery.

This shows that voters are increasingly accepting their responsibility to hold their leaders to account. They know that their vote is their voice, and they are using it.

It also gives South Africans more hope about the future of democracy in South Africa than ever before.

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