/ 16 April 2024

How will South Africans vote come 29 May?

Safrica Politics Election Vote
Although these elections have a sense of anxiety and tension to them, it is an indication of the country’s evolving democracy and society’s changing priorities over time. (Photo by RODGER BOSCH / AFP)

On 29 May, South Africans will head to the polls for the seventh national elections at a time when the country is grappling with a struggling economy, high levels of corruption, poor governance, load-shedding and a cost of living crisis. 

There is also an electoral legislative change in that it will be the first time independent candidates will stand. The complexity of being a “rainbow nation” brings competing interests and priorities and these elections are expected to be tightly contested. Thus, it is difficult to determine how South Africans will vote, but based on voting patterns of the past 30 years, South Africans fall in five categories which inform their decisions.

1. Historical or legacy voters

These are the people who will elect a political party or a candidate based on the enduring effects of certain previous events, deeds or past experiences in a candidate’s life. They feel that the political party or individual should continue to receive their votes because of their beneficial prior contributions to a historical fight or transition, which they see as having cleared the way for some sort of liberties and advancement. The most obvious example being the ANC, the party led by important struggle icons such as Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo, but also the party that led the anti-apartheid struggle and came to power in South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994. 

Other political parties include the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), which was led by the late Mangosuthu Buthelezi and derives its main support from Zulu people because of its historical effect in KwaZulu-Natal; the United Democratic Front (UDM), which was formed by Bantu Holomisa and Roelf Meyer, who contributed some form of legacy in their previous political parties; and the Pan African Congress (PAC), which also contributed to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. 

The older generation tends to be historical in their voting patterns, as have those who have or are directly benefiting from the systems created by these political parties.

2. Populist voters

Populist voters centre their decision on charismatic leaders who assert that they represent the people’s will to solidify their own hold on power. For these kinds of voters, political parties become less significant in this individualised style of politics, and elections are more used to validate the legitimacy of the leader than to represent the interests of a collective organisation. People vote for the political parties affiliated to these leaders and are willing to follow the leader regardless of a change in their political party. This also applies to populist independent candidates. 

This category includes parties such as Good, led by Patricia de Lille who has played a significant role in South African politics; ActionSA led by Herman Mashaba, who was a mayors of the City of Johannesburg; Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), led by Julius Malema, who has become a prominent opposition leader; and the UDM led by Bantu Holomisa, who has played an important role in South African politics over the past 30 years.

3. Solution-based Voters

Solution-based or action voters are those voting for a political party or an individual based on their proposed solutions to key problems in the country or their actions towards addressing these issues. These voters believe that the political party or individual’s approach or actions towards issues are viable. These voters mainly include the middle class and younger generations.

On the political party front, these include the Patriotic Alliance (PA), which is known for its policies on addressing crime and migrants; the EFF for its economic freedom and land policies; ActionSA also for its migration and border control policies; the Democratic Alliance (DA), which champions accountability regarding the ruling ANC; and Rise Mzansi, which has positioned itself as the new democratic alternative the the ANC and is diverse and youthful. 

Independent candidates who are not populist tend to garner their votes from solution-based votes. For instance, Anele Mda hopes to address the corruption in our government system, Lehlohonolo Blessings Ramoba is pushing for job creation and Tshepo Mogano hopes to improve the security in the country through improved policing and military operations.

4. Constituency voters

These people vote for political parties or individuals on the basis that they represent their interests, for example a religious belief system or because they represent a specific group of people. South Africa being a diverse country means there are many interests at play and people want to feel represented in one way or another. Political parties such as the Freedom Front Plus (FF+), which advocates for the rights and interests of the Afrikaner community; the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), which represents Christian interests; and Al Jama-ah, which represents Muslims’ interests. Independent candidates may also garner the support of constituency voters based on their identity or who they seek to represent.

5. Non-voters

Non-Voters are the people who intentionally decide to not vote for various reasons. While it may be argued that non-voters should not be categorised as a voter, one can say the decision to not vote is a form of a vote. The people who say “my vote won’t change anything”, “what’s the point”, “I don’t know who I am going to vote for, so  I will not vote” or “it’s a waste of my time” are people who see no value in contributing to deciding who will lead in government. 

Although these elections have a sense of anxiety and tension to them, it is an indication of the country’s evolving democracy and society’s changing priorities over time. South Africa’s democracy is quite young and will experience a lot of changes for the next couple of years, and the voters will help shape a fitting democratic system for a multi-racial and diverse country.

Karabo Mokgonyana is a legal and development practitioner who focuses on human rights protection, international trade and investment and peace and security.