17 Years On, South Africans Still Vote along Racial Lines


More than 17 years after the defeat of apartheid, South Africans continue to vote almost entirely along racial lines.

As predicted, nationwide elections for local councils on 18 May produced a “same as before, only more so” outcome (see SAR Vol 29 No 11). The ruling African National Congress (ANC) and its main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) took virtually the same share of the vote as they won in South Africa’s first democratic local elections in 2000. (See table at end.)
Over-enthusiastic claims by analysts of a major swing among African voters to the DA reflect wishful thinking. The results do not support the claims. South Africa thus remains a country divided politically between the ANC “majority of the majority” and the DA “majority of the minority”.

While South Africa’s media reported the election as an effective referendum on the ANC’s patchy record on delivery of municipal services, the issue appears to have had little influence on voter choices. Two examples graphically demonstrate this, although there are examples across the country. The best performing council in South Africa pre-election was Saldanha in the Western Cape, run by an ANC led-coalition. DA took outright control on 18 May. And in Theewaterkloof, also in the Western Cape but run by the DA and ranked as one of the worst run municipalities, voters ignored the appalling service to vote the DA back in.

 Key features of the election and its result are:

*  It marked the next step in what is now clearly an inevitable slide towards a classic two-party system. Minority parties took a hammering from the two major parties, leaving the DA uncontested as the ANC’s only real opposition. ANC breakaway Congress of the People (Cope), which marketed itself in 2009 as the first potential challenger to the ANC, plunged from its modest 2009 parliamentary election share of just under 8% to just over 2,1%, losing particularly heavily in its urban Eastern Cape and Northern Cape strongholds. The party will struggle to survive to the 2014 parliamentary election.

And the slow-puncture collapse of Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) continued, hastened by the breakaway of IFP chairperson Zanele Magwaza-Msibi to form a rival for the conservative ethnic Zulu vote, the National Freedom Party. Magwaza-Msibi won a startling 2,6% nationwide and took three municipalities outright in IFP northern KwaZulu Natal heartlands. The IFP, South Africa’s third-largest party in 1994, secured 3,9% of the national vote. In addition to losing three councils (including the regional capital Ulundi), it lost control for the first time of Nkandla – home of President Jacob Zuma. Magwaza-Msibi’s emergence to mobilise the ethnic Zulu vote away from the IFP appears to have slowed a discernable shift to the ANC since Zuma’s election as ANC president. Magwaza-Msibi will continue to erode Buthelezi’s support-base in 2014 and beyond, but is unlikely to be able to halt the inexorable migration of traditionalist Zulu voters into mainstream politics.

*  Voter turnout was 57.8% of South Africa’s 23-million registered voters – significantly up on the 2000 and 2006 local polls, which achieved 48%. DA ran a highly professional campaign, demonstrating an ability to get its voters out and into voting queues. Higher voter turnout was, in turn, the main reason for its almost complete recovery from its disastrous 16% showing in the second local council elections in 2006.

*  The ANC took 198 councils outright and is set to control up to seven more through coalitions. The DA won 17 outright, up from seven in 2006. It is the largest party in nine other councils, potentially giving it control through coaltion of 26.
*  As predicted, control of the six metro councils remained unchanged, although – as predicted – voter dissatisfaction in Nelson Mandela Bay Metro (Port Elizabeth) saw the ANC badly battered by stayaway voters (see SAR Vol 29 No 15). The DA increased its support in Cape Town from 42% in 2006 to 62% – a massive increase mainly accounted for by high voter turnout, driven in turn by the DA’s formidable and experienced electoral machine. The election has seen two new metros added: Buffalo City (East London) and Mangaung (Bloemfontein).

*  The DA further consolidated its support among white, coloured and Indian communities, which make up 21% of South Africa’s people. Racial minority support for the ANC fell off considerably, allowing the DA to confirm its status as the “majority of the minorities”.

*  Internal ANC tensions over next year’s elective conference spilled over into the election, with Zuma’s opponents attempting to position themselves ahead of next year’s elective party conference, regularly taking opportunities to upstage him or criticise his performance in government.

*  DA tripled its support from African voters – but from a low base of just over 1%, to just over 4% – the bulk of it coming from among the newly affluent “black diamond” African voters.
Rural South Africa continues to support the ANC in higher proportion than urban communities, where living standards are higher (ANC support traditionally rises in inverse proportion to affluence) and opposition parties most active. More than 69% of rural voters support the ANC against 15% for the DA. This factor will come into play more forcefully in 2014’s parliamentary and provincial legislature elections, which are run on an exclusively proportional representation (PR) system. Council elections operate a 50-50 ward candidate-PR split. In national elections nuanced changes are diluted by the consistency and volume of the rural vote.

The relative stability of the major parties’ positions has obscured several potentially significant points to the future emerging from the 18 May results.

The first of these is the demise of the DA’s plans for a “grand coalition” of opposition forces to take on the ANC in 2014. The DA’s success and minority opposition parties’ consequent decline makes the plan increasingly impractical: from a voter perspective, most of the “grand coalition” is already in place.

The impact of the DA’s audacious attempt to appropriate the ANC legacy as champion of non-racialism and democracy in South Africa has not been felt this election, although it may have contributed to the DA’s capture of about 4% of the African vote. The party’s research suggests it is winning sympathy, if not votes. It will be more fully tested in parliamentary polls in 2014.

Despite the DA’s massive consolidation of power in Cape Town, the ANC held its share at 32%. This is more than it projected pre-election in its draft strategy to regain control of the Western Cape. The strategy, titled Path to Power, recognises the destruction of ANC organisational structures by successive provincial leaderships and the need to rebuild the provincial party from the ground up. It also recognises that this will take time, and that ANC councillors will need to prove their credentials on the opposition benches to regain voter support. Despite the 18 May defeat, the ANC is not unhappy with the steps it has taken on its planned path to power.

2000 Local   ANC: 59,4%  DA:22,1%

2011 Local   ANC: 63,58% DA:21,9%