A turning tide?

A study by the University of Cape Town’s centre for social science research has found “diminishing party loyalties for all parties and the corresponding growth of a ‘floating’ or an independent electorate” in South Africa.

The growing flexibility of voter attitudes highlighted by the research is good news for ANC rebels planning a new party to fight next year’s elections.

The study, by Collette Shultz-Hertzenberg, crunched election data collated from eight surveys conducted over 10 years. It suggests that this “silent revolution” might have its strongest hold among youngest voters who are becoming less aligned and from the new middle classes.

Shultz-Herzenberg says that de-alignment and demographic changes within the population have begun to change levels of political partisanship “as the sizes and distribution of different social groups alter and affect voting results”.

“Although party loyalties seldom shift abruptly, it would seem that partisanship in South Africa has fluctuated considerably more than is acknowledged.”

Non-partisans now make up a significant proportion of the eligible electorate, the study finds.

In 1994 the ANC enjoyed a 60% partisanship, while the collective opposition percentage was 28% and independents 12%.
In 2004 the ANC’s share dropped to 44% and the opposition to 14%, while the percentage for independents grew to 42%.

“Black voters are not an ... unquestionably loyal electorate, as is often assumed. Levels of ANC partisanship among black South Africans have fluctuated between 62% and 42%, decreasing steadily since 1994, but have not been counter-balanced by shifts to opposition parties.”

Shultz-Herzenberg’s study finds support in the latest survey of voter attitudes by political analyst and pollster Laurie Schlemmer, director of MarkData. Called Testing Times for Democracy in South Africa, it argues that “a long, hard road of mobilisation awaits the opposition parties”.

Schlemmer finds that many disaffected ANC supporters “would love to have honest and hard-working opposition politicians join the ANC” and are not yet ready to support the opposition parties.

But he predicts that the slow “accretion” of black votes to opposition parties has begun and will be reflected in next year’s election.

Voters of all persuasions find the idea of political cooperation and coalitions between opposition parties appealing. In Schlemmer’s survey up to 38% of ANC supporters said they would seriously consider voting for a broad-based coalition of opposition parties.

The survey says “admiration” for DA leader Helen Zille and the DA has “grown slowly but steadily”.

“In 2004 9% of African voters and 15% of all voters ‘admired’ the major opposition leader and by 2008 these percentages had shifted to 14% and 26% respectively.

The survey suggests that South African politics are being normalised, with a focus away from “the realisation of liberation towards urgent concerns, such as social redress and nation-building”.

Says Herzenberg: “South African citizens confront and debate issues that represent a more normalised political terrain, such as housing, education and budgetary matters ... [they] directly experience the outcomes of policy choices and the political successes and failures of an ANC-led government.”

Hertzberg has found that although race still matters, it matters in a different way.

“Race tends to shape what voters think, not the way they think about issues. Race therefore takes an indirect or moderating effect on the voting decision by providing an important information cue about government performance and party images.

“Data shows that South Africans are not overwhelmingly pre-occupied with affirming their racial identities through political parties at election time.

“The high numbers of independents across racial groups and the influence of evaluations on partisanship also suggest that voters do not use elections merely to register their communal ties or racial identities.”

Schlemmer’s study indicates that at least 20% of black voters are not so intensively motivated by racial or racially structured interests that they cannot consider alternatives to the ANC.

Asked whether government should “appoint the most able people on merit irrespective of race”, 83% of black South Africans endorsed non-racial appointments on merit.

Significantly, while the eligible voting age has increased because of population growth by about five million in 10 years, the number of registered voters has not increased at the same rate.

Between 1999 and 2004 the Independent Electoral Commission increased the voters’ roll by 2,5-million to 20,6-million voters. Yet according to eligible voting age surveys, seven-million potential voters were not recorded. In addition, the number of votes cast has decreased by 3,9-million since 1994. Despite increased electoral margins for the ANC, from 63% to 69%, the percentage of eligible voters voting for the governing party has not increased or even remained static in proportion to population growth.

In fact the percentage of actual support has decreased from 53% to 39% of South Africa’s eligible voting population.

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