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South African elections: research explores how disillusioned ANC supporters might use their vote

THE African National Congress (ANC) has been in power since South Africa became a democracy in 1994. The party has been electorally dominant since then, reaching a peak of 69.7% of national votes in 2004.

However, support for the party has declined sharply since the 2014 national and provincial elections, reaching a low of 57.5% in 2019.

Negative attitudes towards the ruling party have depressed its vote tallies, increased abstention, and widened potential support for opposition parties. Opinion polls have consistently shown that the ANC will not win the more than 50% of votes required to form a government by itself in the national and provincial elections on 29 May 2024.

This raises the likelihood of the first national coalition government in 30 years.

For my PhD thesis, I researched how South African opposition parties organise and campaign at the municipal level and the factors that influence individual voting decisions. It revealed that voting decisions are heavily conditioned by experiences with government service delivery. More than policy platforms, the decision to vote was influenced by personal feelings about whether any political party could be trusted to provide basic health, electricity, housing, and roads in a fair manner.

As part of doctoral research to understand the nuances of South African voting behaviour, I conducted semi-structured interviews with 111 people who intended to vote for the ANC in the municipalities of eThekwini, on the east coast of the country; Johannesburg; Ekurhuleni, east of Johannesburg; and Rustenburg, in the North West province; between 2017 and 2018. I focused on black townships, which have historically been bastions of support for the ruling party.

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Based on the research findings, I argue that the extent of loyalty to the ANC varied significantly among supporters. Many of those intending to vote ANC in 2019 expressed only a “thin” loyalty to the party. Their weaker ties to the ANC make them more prone to changing their votes or abstaining in subsequent elections. This was most evident among those who reached voting age after the first democratic elections in 1994. This demographic made up 68% of the voting-age population at the time of the 2022 StatsSA Census.

Degrees of loyalty

A first category of ANC voters expressed strong loyalty to the party, which was more prevalent among older South Africans but also some younger voters who valued the ANC’s history in the struggle for political freedom. Strong emotional attachments to the party made them resistant to changing their voting choice. Individuals affirmed that “now I won’t just turn my back” or

you will be an ANC member until you die.

However, a second category of ANC supporters had a “thin” loyalty to the party. They voted for it because they saw it as the only party that had provided services to their communities. They had more of a transactional relationship than an emotional investment. They said they would continue to vote for the ANC because it was the only party that had historically shown a commitment to “change” and “development” within their communities, even though they were not satisfied with the current rate of improvements in housing, electricity, and water service delivery.

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A 39-year-old woman in Soweto explained that even though she was deeply unsatisfied with the ANC, she would continue to vote for them

because they used to do good things.

A third category of ANC voters voted strategically or habitually because they thought it was prudent to align themselves with the party most likely to win. Despite their unhappiness with ANC performance, they were afraid that voting for an opposition party would be a “waste” because they were unlikely to win. They expressed a declining emotional attachment to the ANC over time. A 31-year-old man explained this in an interview:

I am so confused now, because yes, I have voted before, but now things are not the same like before.

Opposition parties were not seen as viable because they had not contributed to local development. While local governments are directly responsible for providing electricity, sanitation and water services, the provincial and national governments have a significant role in providing basic healthcare, electricity generation, housing and upgrading informal settlements.

Voters were concerned that they were less likely to benefit from these services if they elected an opposition councillor or provincial government that would have to work with the ANC government at the national level. In this way, strategic considerations often loomed larger than policy platforms or party leadership.

Tipping point

Since the 2019 elections, public opinion of the ANC has continued to worsen. Perceptions of service delivery have been undermined by, for example, power cuts that have devastated the economy.

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The thinning loyalty towards the ANC (especially among young people) increases the probability that they will change their voting behaviour in the future. Some may opt to abstain. But if eligible voters start to see opposition parties as credible challengers, then voting for them will represent a potentially effective way to improve development outcomes.

As the most loyal ANC voters from older generations continue to decline relative to the “born free” generations, the narrative of the ANC’s decline could potentially drive strategic voters to opposition parties in greater numbers.

The 2024 elections may well be the tipping point that enables opposition parties to portray themselves as viable contenders in the formation of coalition governments on the provincial and national stage. These parties are poised to attract votes from those with a “thin” loyalty to the ANC. As feelings of loyalty diminish, the electoral environment is becoming more conducive for voters to entertain the real possibility of putting opposition parties in positions of power.

MICHAEL BRAUN, Centennial Postdoctoral Fellow, University of the Witwatersrand

By MICHAEL BRAUN

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