/ 3 June 2024

How pollsters accurately called MK party’s stellar rise

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MK Party leader Jacob Zuma. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

South Africans frustrated and disillusioned by the ANC’s broken promises inevitably threw their weight in last Wednesday’s general election behind a man many view as corrupt.

But to supporters of former president Jacob Zuma in KwaZulu-Natal, he is trustworthy, and a scapegoat for the endemic corruption in the governing party.

Zuma’s uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party took 45.38%, the lion’s share of the vote, in the province, followed by the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) with 18.09%, the ANC at 17.01%, and the Democratic Alliance’s (DA) 13.28%. Nationally, MK came out with 14.6% of the vote, taking third position after the ANC and the DA, and relegating the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) to fourth place.

MK’s stellar success, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal, was accurately called by several pollsters, including the Social Research Foundation, Ipsos and the Brenthurst Foundation, as early as February.

The three organisations, as cited in a Centre for Risk Analysis (CRA) report, conducted polls that forecast a “shifting political landscape” in which MK would rise to prominence.

“Between these polls, the ANC is expected to get the largest share of the votes —although none puts the ANC above 50%. Polling data indicates that the DA stands to remain between 20% and 27% of the vote, while the EFF stagnates around 10%. Should the official 2024 election results reflect the polling figures  …the MK party could emerge as the third or fourth-biggest party in South Africa,” the report said.

Social Research Foundation board member Bheki Mahlobo said the organisation, to make this call, conducted a daily election tracker, polling public sentiment of all age groups and demographics across provinces starting six weeks before elections. One of the questions asked was which party people would vote for if an election was held “today”.

Mahlobo told the Mail & Guardian this weekend that the poll had reflected “a slice of public sentiment” that has been brewing for years.

“A lot of what we are seeing in MK was what we saw in 2022, for example, when a third of ANC supporters said they were open to the idea of voting for another party. And that answer was the MK and Jacob Zuma this year – the vote for MK is not necessarily a vote for the party’s policies, but really the frustration amongst ANC voters,” he said.

“This is a party that hasn’t really over the past 10 years improved the living conditions of South Africans, and has lost a lot of support. ANC voter support is anchored by the material circumstances of South Africans and as those were depleted, party support levels declined.”

He added that another contributing factor was the ANC’s perceived ill treatment of Zuma, who according to polls is more popular in KwaZulu-Natal than President Cyril Ramaphosa.

“He stands next to Nelson Mandela in that province, which explains a lot of the momentum growing MK. It’s a frustration vote against the ANC, and it’s a vote for Zuma,” he said. “They see this as a man who was exiled by his own party and scapegoated by the ANC. These problems of corruption are quite prevalent within the ANC itself.”

Mahlobo said the MK party had also taken votes from the EFF, which 70% of registered voters viewed as a violent party.

“South Africans are very moderate in their way of thinking. They don’t like violence. They want jobs, they want education. These are issues front and centre for millions of South Africans,” Mahlobo said.

Mahlobo said former CRA head France Cronje had in 2012 first called the waning of the ANC’s support to below 50% of the vote.

“He made the call by looking at the socio-economic conditions in the country, which showed, protest levels rising, violent protest levels rising, unemployment rising, youth unemployment rising, and education standards decaying, which led to a decline in ANC voter support,” Mahlobo said.

“It’s the perfect way in which the political system is working. Citizens should have the ability to vote for a party which they believe will improve their lives. And should that party fail to do so materially, in a way they can see and touch, then they should be able to vote out that party, and that’s exactly what we saw in these elections.”

The CRA follows the data where it leads, even when conclusions defy conventional wisdom, executive director Chris Hattingh said. 

“Ahead of this election, one of the most intriguing phenomena was the growing number of ANC voters who were no longer ANC supporters. This, as well as voting abstention from ANC-leaning voters, suggested that there existed a large potential pool of disgruntled ANC voters who could be persuaded to vote for a different party if the offer was compelling enough,” Hattingh said.

Enter the MK party, and those disgruntled voters suddenly felt they had an alternative, Hattingh said, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal, where Zuma remains “phenomenally popular” despite his legal woes.

“MK was the party that broke the dam wall of loyalty keeping ANC support above 50%. MK’s high levels of support may also reflect a sense of euphoria taking hold of KZN voters, which mostly affected the ANC vote but dragged along some EFF and IFP voters in its slipstream,” he said.

When the CRA was confronted with initial polling results showing high levels of MK support in the province and even nationally in February, it was “sceptical” despite holding the Social Research Foundation in high regard, Hattingh said,

However, polling data released by other organisations, including the Brenthurst Foundation and Ipsosm, corroborated the “seemingly anomalous findings”, firming up the view that they were accurate.

“Polling conducted closer to the election …came remarkably close to the actual figures in the election,” Hattingh said.

The reason MK did so well was that it had provided an outlet for pent-up voter frustration, but it would be a mistake to attribute its success to the appeal of its manifesto, he said.

“ANC governance has been disappointing in KwaZulu-Natal, especially in eThekwini. Once voters saw a credible and – in their view – trustworthy alternative to the ANC, they flocked to support it,’ Hattingh said. 

“Although we consider much of the MK manifesto to be dangerously populist, we recognise the impressive political skill former President Jacob Zuma showed in playing the hand he had been dealt to his advantage and that of his party.

“The shift in support to MK was driven not by policy, but by personality. MK voters see in Zuma a politician who has their interests at heart, who understands them, who is authentic and in touch. He has successfully positioned himself as a victim – of an unjust judicial system and an uncaring ANC – who is rallying the people to his cause and who can be trusted to look out for them.

“He supplies emotional comfort to an electorate that feels abandoned by the far-off Luthuli House. While M&G readers see Mr Zuma as a convicted criminal, originator of state capture and underminer of the rule of law, his supporters in KZN see him as a lovable rogue who may have overstepped the mark here and there, but whose heart is in the right place.”

The rise of MK presents risks of violence and corruption, Hattingh added.

“KZN is the province most plagued by political violence and assassinations. As ANC councillors in local municipalities watch the rise of MK, many will be tempted to throw in their lot with MK in the run-up to the 2026 local government elections. This will create a great deal of tension and disruption, with the potential for more political assassinations and violence,” he said.

“The people of KZN will also be mindful of the violence and looting that shook the province in July 2021 triggered by supporters of Mr Zuma and will be wary of a repeat performance.”

Hattingh questioned what would become of the party when Zuma is no longer able to perform his duties.

“As the party has been set up in a rush and experienced dizzying growth in its first few months, it will now have to create structures and an identity that can persist beyond Mr Zuma’s involvement,” he said.

“If MK forms part of a government be it at national level, or in KZN, or both, its influence is unlikely to be growth-friendly or in support of South Africa’s institutions, especially the law enforcement agencies.

“This means that governments involving MK present a high risk of corruption, the undermining of democratic institutions, and the introduction of populist policies that undermine property rights and the rule of law. This will be negative for investor sentiment, job creation and incomes.”