While EFF’s emotive rhetoric may strike a chord among young voters, non-registration is certain to nullify its effects, says Collette Schulz-Herzenberg.
Cape Town - One of the most interesting aspects of any election is the arrival of a newcomer to the political scene.
The newly launched Economic Freedom Fighters, led by Julius Malema, has promised to win a significant share of the votes in next year’s election, challenging both the incumbents and main opposition party, and thereby cementing its future in South African politics.
Some observers have dismissed these claims, pointing to the inability of small political parties to make a dent in the electoral landscape in the past.
Others, however, warn of a tsunami effect at the elections as a result of Malema’s emotive rhetoric, which is likely to appeal to a potentially sizeable audience comprising mainly younger, economically disenfranchised black African voters.
But just how sizeable is the EFF’s constituency and to what extent can the party ensure that its appeal translates into votes?
A closer look at the numbers suggests a slightly different scenario could play out at the polls.
Initial consideration must be given to registration. Of the numerous arguments made by Malema at the EFF’s launch, he was certainly correct on one point – that registration levels among his supporters would be a crucial factor in shaping his party’s political future.
Current IEC registration figures show that, six months prior to the election, roughly 4.8 million people between the ages of 18-29 are registered to vote.
This group represents almost a quarter of all registered voters (or 21 percent), yet many, many more young voters remain unregistered.
According to the 2011 Census figures, there are approximately 13.5m eligible voters in this age group and with only 4.8 million registered, this means that only 36 percent of all young eligible voters can actually vote in next year’s election.
What does this mean for the EFF, or any other party for that matter? Quite simply, if your party has tailored its campaign message to a “youth vote”, even if it finds traction, it is unlikely to translate into votes at the polls.
While the emotive rhetoric of Malema may strike a chord among young voters, non-registration is certain to nullify its effects. Overlooking a simple issue of registration can undo a new party long before it finds its place in the formal institutional setting.
Assuming the registered number of 18-29-year-olds doubles in the next six months to 9.6 million voters, they would then comprise a massive 42 percent of all registered voters. From a numerical perspective, therein lies the power of the youth vote.
Yet, again, the youth is hardly a homogenous political group.
While young people have common aspirations, their life experiences reflect the diversity of broader South African society, and this diversity is bound to find different political expression. Just in terms of education and class interests, Malema’s youth and the DA’s youth are poles apart. Ideological diversity among the youth will simply dilute the effects of a youth vote on next year’s election outcome.
So, we need to identify the particular size and strength of Malema’s “youthful” constituency.
A breakdown of the EFF’s potential support base by race, age and province reveals some interesting facts. By the party’s own admission it aims to appeal to young, black African voters who have lost faith in the ruling party’s ability to address economic inequalities in South Africa. Using Census 2011 data one can isolate this potential group of voters.
Among 18-29-year-olds some 11 million black African voters, are potentially available for persuasion. However, if only 36 percent of this age group is currently registered, then only approximately four million votes can be won.
Further disaggregation by employment status using the Census data shows that just over 3.3 million black African voters between the ages of 18-29 are either unemployed or discouraged work-seekers, the group most likely to be disillusioned with the government’s economic performance.
This represents 30 percent of all African voters between ages of 18-29 years. And assuming, once again, that roughly 36 percent of this age group are registered to vote, this provides about 1.2 million voters who fall neatly into the ideological ambit of Malema’s target group.
So far, the figures provided reflect a national base. The EFF’s focus on three provinces, namely Mpumalanga, Limpopo, and North West, is likely to further define and shrink its active support base.
During elections, proximity to parties, leaders and campaign messages matter a great deal to voters. Like most small opposition parties, the EFF’s reach beyond these geographical constituencies will be marred by a lack of party funding and other resources.
It is unlikely that the EFF will attract significant private funding from either black- or white-owned business. The party must therefore rely on membership and volunteerism to reach voters.
Of course, the EFF may achieve small, but significant electoral victories in these provinces and, in turn, reduce the ANC’s large majorities. Even so, assuming the EFF collects a noteworthy 5 percent of the vote share in each province, a quick calculation using the 2009 provincial election results as a base suggests that, once averaged, the ANC’s national vote share will not diminish by even one percentage point.
By employing radical rhetoric, the EFF may have generated its own glass ceiling.
The party makes no pretense about its target audience being defined by specific race, class and age groups.
Yet, survey data repeatedly shows that South African voters are repelled by exclusionary parties, and often prefer to vote for parties that they perceive are broadly representative, especially of race.
Yet the EFF has nurtured an exclusivist racialised and class-based party image that, by definition, can only appeal to a narrow audience of unemployed, or working-class, black African voters.
Data collected by the Centre for Social Science Research in late 2011 indicates the unpopularity of Malema at the time.
The public were asked about their attitudes towards 11 prominent ANC figures. Results show that while Malema was the leader respondents were most familiar with (after President Jacob Zuma), he was also the most unpopular. Indeed, 55 percent of African respondents in a nationally representative sample held a negative view of Malema.
Although his popularity may have changed over the past two years, these figures give some indication of the work Malema needs to do if he wants to expand his support base among African voters.
No doubt the EFF also intends its support to come from older voters. But older voters of any race group are far less likely than their younger counterparts to vote for this party.
The attitudes and behaviour of young voters are more susceptible or responsive to changing political contexts compared to older cohorts.
Second, older voters tend to shy away from more extremist rhetoric, preferring to opt for moderation.
People also tend to be habitual about their party choice and voting. Once they have psychologically committed to a party the strength of partisan identification tends to persist over time, making older voters far less likely to be swayed by political newcomers.
When it comes to electoral competition, the size of competing groups matters a great deal. Ironically, the EFF’s potential growth relies on the party adopting a more moderated political discourse that can appeal to a broader audience, or, alternatively, a significant increase in the size of its current demographic support base.
Thus, the EFF’s future electoral growth will rely on an increase in the number of economically disenfranchised, young African voters. And therein lies the paradox of extremist parties.The EFF may collect sufficient votes at the 2014 election to earn itself seats in provincial legislatures and perhaps even national Parliament. And this is to be welcomed.
After all, democracies flourish when diverse opinions and conflicts are channelled into their institutions. And importantly, radical sentiments tend to moderate themselves when faced with the humdrum processes of institutional life.
In this arena, the litmus test for this party will be to uphold its revolutionary stance in an environment where moderation is central to outcomes and chit-chat about legislation over tea and muffins is the order of the day.
* Dr Collette Schulz-Herzenberg is a political science graduate and currently a postdoctoral research fellow with the Centre for Social Science Research at UCT.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.