The 'silent revolution' among South African voters

The ANC could lose 20% of its voting support to a breakaway party, research by professor Lawrence Schlemmer’s MarkData indicates.

Schlemmer’s study was conducted between March last year and May this year, before the emergence of Mosiuoa Lekota’s Congress of the People (Cope). It shows support for the ANC dropped from 62% to 59% over the nine-month period, while support for the DA climbed from 9,9% to 17%.

What it does not indicate, however, is how much Cope could eat into the voting support for the DA and other opposition parties.
The DA and Cope could find themselves in competition in the 2009 election campaign, particularly in more urban provinces such as Gauteng and the Western Cape.

Schlemmer’s study indicated that other opposition groupings have also grown marginally stronger, with the ID’s support rising from 1,4% to 2%, the UDM’s from 1,4% to 2% and the ACDP’s from 0,5% to 0,9%.

With elections just five months away, this suggests a new electoral volatility in response to infighting in the ANC, public uncertainty about ANC president Jacob Zuma and Cope’s impending launch, set for December 16.

Researcher Collette Schulz-Herzenberg, who crunched 12 years of election data between 1994 and 2006 for a doctoral thesis published by the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Social Science Research, referred to “a silent revolution” in voting behaviour.

The data shows that after 2004 both ANC partisanship and opposition support declined, alongside a growing “independent” voter bloc.

The greatest threat to the ANC’s dominance could come from a post-election coalition between Cope and the DA.

DA leader Helen Zille said recently that the two parties had held no “formal” discussions, suggesting there has been informal contact.

All the main opposition parties sent representatives to the Cope convention in Johannesburg a fortnight ago. Zille received a rapturous welcome from delegates.

In an interview she cautioned that the DA’s attendance “was not an endorsement of any other political formation” but that the convention could help separate the “wheat from the chaff”.

“If, however, it merely spawns a ‘carbon Copey’ of the old ANC, differentiated only by revenge and competing power cliques, it will be an opportunity lost,” she said.

This past weekend Zille will have fronted a DA “relaunch” at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg, which will project the party as being “ready to govern”, either on its own or in coalition, rather than merely being an opposition force.

The DA’s chief strategist, Ryan Coetzee, said the party cannot yet determine Cope’s potential impact on DA support.

“What we know is that most voters understand they are an ANC faction. We also know that membership doesn’t always translate into votes,” Coetzee said.

But he said that the picture had changed fundamentally and the ANC stood to lose support in certain metros, including the Eastern and Western Cape and, possibly, Gauteng.

Opposition parties will campaign for next year’s election in a political milieu offering the first real opportunity for broader cooperation. Schlemmer found South African voters of all persuasions consider the idea of opposition coalitions “very appealing”.

Past coalition pacts have been tenuous, including the IFP and DA’s 2004 “Coalition for Change”. Former DA leader Tony Leon is seen as having a tendency for “Faustian pacts” and trying to swallow coalition partners, but Zille has been more strategic. The successful DA-led multiparty coalition in Cape Town and other Cape municipalities has made smaller opposition parties more receptive.

The UDM, ACDP, IFP, ID and Freedom Front Plus have all announced that they will enter coalitions only after the election. The new electoral volatility reflects a significant increase in floating voters who are not close to any political party.

Adding to this is the scrapping of floor-crossing legislation, which has weakened opposition parties since 2001. Three Bills will be promulgated after the National Council of Provinces votes on them on November 19.

The age composition of the electorate has also shifted, with significantly more youth voters aged between 18 and 30. Many voters in 2009 were in their early teens in 1994.

Schulz-Herzenberg’s study found more flexible voting by 18- to 29-year-olds in the 2004 election, suggesting that this reflected “the beginning of a new post-apartheid age cohort entering the electorate with less partisan attachments”.

The current volatility follows a long period of opposition decline. An earlier study by Schlemmer, Testing Times for Democracy, supported the idea that in the previous 12 years there had been a “slow accretion of black support for the ANC” and that the opposition had haemorrhaged 30% of its support since 1994.

Schlemmer found many ANC supporters are disaffected but unready to change their voting behaviour. For many black voters, voting for an established opposition party may be “a bridge too far at this point”.

Because it has roots in the ANC, Cope could cash in on this section of the electorate.

Crucial to the 2009 poll will be voter turnout, which has fallen by 3,9-million since 1994, despite a growth in eligible voters and higher registration figures.

This has been a key source of the ANC’s ever-increasing majority. 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.

As the election contest will revolve more around personalities—particularly Zuma—than policy, campaign finances will also be crucial. Essentially, says Schulz-Herzenberg, “it will be about Jacob Zuma”.

The DA estimates that it needs about R40-million. Cope, with only a few months between its launch and the poll, faces an ANC with an established membership, branch infrastructure and sources of finance.

Below the radar some opposition parties have been recruiting, organising and canvassing for several months. The DA has rolled out an extensive grassroots programme, hiring one full-time salaried organiser for every two wards.

The IFP has also embarked on a “listening” and voter registration campaign, driven by its national chairperson, Zanele kaMagwaza-Msibi.

Schulz-Herzenberg says South Africans are not as rigid as often assumed and do not “just pump out votes according to white and black”.

If Cope can offer a vision and policies that appeal to disaffected voters it could seize the moment.

But 2009 may be the start of a longer-term shift. Political pundits and politicians believe a major tectonic shift is likely only in 2014, but Robert Shrire of UCT’s political studies department, says “psychological flexibility” needed for change will be sparked by opposition parties behaving as rivals to the ANC rather than enemies.

“Informal interparty cooperation among like-minded people sets at least some foundation stones for a later, significant realignment,” Shrire says.

Many believe the longer-term realignment will involve the merger of elements of the DA and other opposition parties, including Cope, into one significant, black-led opposition party.

DA breaks its back
What kind of “bang for their cross” are South Africa’s voters getting from parties in Parliament? The DA is the hardest-working, by some margin.

  • The DA, with 47 seats, asked 1 690 written questions in the National Assembly in 2007. It was followed by ID (four seats, 135 questions), the IFP (23 seats, 81 questions), the ANC (297 seats, 41 questions), the FF+ (four seats, 33 questions), the ACDP (four seats, 17 questions), the UDM (six seats, seven questions), the PAC (one seat, two questions), the Federation of Democrats (one seat, two questions) and Azapo (one seat, one question). Eight other parties, with a total of 16 seats, submitted no written questions.
  • The DA asked 244 of the 548 oral questions in 2007, followed by the ANC (187), the IFP (47), the FF+ (27), the ACDP (24), the ID (15), the Minority Front (two seats, two questions), the UDM (two questions), the United Christian Democratic Party (three seats, one question) and the Federation of Democrats (one question).
  • Of 44 motions introduced this year in the National Assembly 28 were introduced by the DA, six by the ANC, five by the ACDP, three by the IFP, one by the ID and one by the UDM.
  • The DA has introduced 12 private member’s Bills in the past two years and the IFP four.

Six parties—the Progressive Independent Movement, the National Alliance, the National Democratic Convention, the United Independent Front, the United Party of South Africa and the African People’s Convention—asked no written or oral questions, introduced no private member’s Bills and proposed no motions.

Their inertia costs voters a packet. Craig Morkel’s Progressive Independent Movement, for example, cost taxpayers about R4,5-million in the four years it existed after its launch during a floor-crossing window in 2005.

As leader of a minority party Morkel received an annual package of R584 000 and a R442 000 constituency allowance from Parliament, as well as R85 000 from the Independent Electoral Commission.

Tax money given to political parties in the 2006/07 financial year amounted to R79-million. The ANC received R53,5-million of this, based on the number of its public representatives, followed by the DA with R9,6-million.

Five other parties—the ACDP, the FF+, the ID, the UDM and the United Independent Front (UIF)—received between R1-million and R2-million. One-person parties such as the PIM received R85 755.

Over and above funding from the Represented Political Parties Fund, opposition leaders, MPs, MPLs and MECs receive salaries, allowances and various other benefits. The Independent Commission for the Remuneration of Public Office Bearers recently recommended an 11% increase effective retrospective from April 1. If these recommendations are approved by the president and Parliament, the MPs will receive R714 618.

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