A series of polls has heralded declining fortunes for the ANC in this year’s elections, which are steeped in the heavily symbolic 20th anniversary of South Africa’s transition to democracy.
The governing party appears unperturbed. There is talk of gaining overwhelming majorities and President Jacob Zuma has again said the ANC will rule until Jesus returns. All this is, of course, part of electioneering rhetoric – and South African citizens can expect counter-hype soon, as other political parties follow the ANC in launching election manifestos.
Whether one believes polls or not - among commentators are sceptics like Centre for the Study of Democracy director Steven Friedman, who argues that surveys have gotten it wrong more often than right - surveys do capture a mood at a particular point in time.
Today’s South Africa presents an explosive mix of high unemployment, stubbornly low economic growth, increasing consumer pressure due to rising food and petrol prices, ineffective state spending annually wasting around R30 billion, poverty and levels of inequality which are among the world’s highest.
Added to this combination stirring citizens’ disenchantment are sagas like the controversial R208 million taxpayer-funded security upgrades at Zuma’s Nkandla rural homestead and the increasingly publicly apparent insidious networks between business people and political leaders, particularly at provincial and local levels.
Citizens’ frustrations run deep despite ANC policies which have benefited both the burgeoning black middle classes and South Africa’s millions of poor, who gained free housing, access to basic services and improved educational and skills training opportunities over the past 20 years.
Disenchantment more and more often erupts in community demonstrations, or service delivery protests. These protests are described as communities’ means to engage otherwise unresponsive politicians and ineffective public servants in two key research pro-jects – the December 2013 Freedom House study “Twenty Years of South African Democracy” by Professor Susan Booysen and July 2011 report “The Smoke that Calls” by Wits University Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
An alternative mechanism to enforce political accountability, Booysen argues, the spinoffs from these protests would also include improved services although this may not necessarily be the most important, or even primary, aim.
If, as the saying goes, a week is a long time in politics, the approximately three months to this year’s elections could be an eternity. The coming weeks hold plenty of opportunity to persuade voters as party political election machineries promise personal contact with voters.
Young voters are crucial, not only for political parties, but also the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), which is expected to hold a second registration weekend early next month. Although South Africa’s population is getting younger, only one in 10 18- and 19- year-olds is registered to vote, as are just about half of those aged 20 to 29.
The question for the elections will be whether voters will stay away, give the ANC another term to implement transformative policies, choose an opposition party or split their vote by choosing different political parties at national and provincial levels.
IEC data show that despite registering 5.2 million more eligible voters between 1999 and 2009 – maintaining a registration average in the high 70 percentages amid a growing population – the numbers of those actually voting has not increased proportionally. In 1999, 16.2 million of the about 18 million registered voters from a 25.4 million-strong voting-age population actually cast their ballots. In 2009, 17.9 million voters cast their ballots, although 23.1 million of the 31.6 million voting age population were registered.
Voter turn-out statistics will be key indicators for any incoming administration’s credibility. There is a huge difference winning if only half of the registered voters actually bother to turn out on election day, or whether 80 percent do so.
Depending on poll outcomes, some serious soul-searching may be required.
Across various pre-election surveys broad trends emerge. Within these the spotlight falls on Gauteng. In the country’s economic heartland, the ANC appears under serious pressure and at risk of losing its majority. Last week an Ipsos “Pulse of the People” survey indicated a 45.5 percent support for the ANC in Gauteng, where in 2009 it obtained 64.04 percent.
Based on interviews conducted in November last year, the Ipsos survey comes on the back of widespread speculation by the ANC’s own polling pundits showing 55 percent support, and just over 60 percent without Zuma, and other polls, including those of the opposition DA, showing a just below 50 percent support for the governing party in Gauteng.
Nationally, no one doubts the ANC will win. The question is about support levels. Any dip under 60 percent, analysts like Prince Mashele argue, would be a psychological blow, particularly as the country celebrates 20 years of the democracy the ANC was fundamental in bringing about. A recent Sunday Times survey, conducted by Markinor, showed only 55 percent of those who voted ANC in 2009 would do so this year.
In the Western Cape, few, if anyone, doubt the DA will retain control clinched in 2009 with 51.46 percent. The Ipsos poll showed support of 54.1 percent for the DA there, a smallish upward swing in the province it governs which, if borne out by election results, raises questions about the DA’s much-touted growth.
The “Pulse of the People” survey on provincial party political support amid moderate voter turn-out showed the ANC gaining a clear majority in six of the nine provinces, ranging from 71.4 percent in the Eastern Cape to 55.4 percent in the Free State.
But in KwaZulu-Natal, the ANC polled at 56.6 percent, well below the 62.95 percent achieved in 2009.
The elections will test debutantes AgangSA, under Mamphela Ramphele, and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), led by Julius Malema, who was expelled from the ANC Youth League in 2012.
Various voter sentiment polls put EFF support at between 4 percent to 5.5 percent nationally. More interesting could be provincial trends – in Limpopo and North West, the EFF polled at 11.4 percent and 12.7 percent respectively, making it more popular than the DA, which leads opposition rankings in the other six provinces.
Election prospects of 2009 newcomer Cope – its 1.3 million votes made it the third biggest party in Parliament – have gone up in smoke. The IFP faces continued decline, even on home turf in KwaZulu-Natal where its 22.4 percent showing in the 2009 elections now stands at 9.8 percent, according to Ipsos.
Analysts agree all indications are that disenchanted ANC voters would rather avoid voting stations, than cast ballots for another party.
Thus the DA is unlikely to reach its much-touted 30 percent support target. However, if previous election trends continue, the DA is set to gain by gobbling up other opposition parties, whose support levels are on the wane, according to the various pre-election surveys.
For the ANC, the impact remains unclear now that the 338 000-strong metalworkers’ union Numsa decided not to support it because of the government’s failure to deliver radical economic transformation and corruption proneness.
Effectively, the ANC is shut out countrywide from the car factories, garage forecourts, car retailers and other workplaces represented by the largest affiliate of labour federation Cosatu.
The repercussions of last month’s Numsa special national congress must still play out within the trade union movement, traditionally a crucial election organisational muscle for the ANC. But Numsa clearly is on a collision course with Cosatu, which this week vowed to work towards the ANC’s election victory.
Yet, until voters actually make their crosses on ballot papers, the jury is out on the results.
* Marianne Merten writes for Independent Newspapers’ Political Bureau