OPINION - Ayanda Sishi-Wigzell: The Poll-arisation of the South African electorate: Who benefits?

Election posters on streetlight posts in the Western Cape ahead of the May 29 elections. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane / Independent Newspapers

Election posters on streetlight posts in the Western Cape ahead of the May 29 elections. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane / Independent Newspapers

Published Apr 26, 2024


By Ayanda Sishi-Wigzell

In this election season, you would be forgiven for being fatigued with the barrage of information coming at you from all kinds of sources, sometimes dubious ones.

However, there is nothing that has intrigued me more than the selective use of polls in this election season by political organisations, NGOs, and the media.

Polling is the exercise of collecting data from potential voters. It’s no different to the collection of marketing data by companies. Companies use such data to see how to best market their products to their customer base and which areas they need to focus on. Like most companies, political parties too are trying to sell you their message and they need data from the ground to see if their political message is coming across to the people who need to hear it. Every election season has always had some sort of polling to come with it. However, this year it is on steroids. Let’s examine what’s going on.

How is polling deployed in Elections 2024

There is nothing wrong with the use of polls in an election, with the caveat that polls are becoming electioneering tools. Such polls are not objective truths. Polling gives us a snapshot sample of the full truth. Polling in South Africa could only be an accurate measure of sentiment if we lived in an equal society. But we don’t.

This year, there is something sinister about the number of times polling figures have been used, when they have been deployed, and by whom. What do these figures represent about our country? What story do these figures and polls tell us about where the future of our country is going? In a country as unequal as South Africa, one has to question where these insights are coming from.

Who is being asked to give their opinions about who they are going to vote for in this upcoming election? Some of the authors of these polls, their funders, political principals and the liberal commentariat, who are the intended audience of such poll findings, tend to forget that South Africa consists of so many different people from across the country who have every right to have their voices heard and quantified in such polls.

When we look at the number of people who are registered to vote, we see that the figure was sitting at just over 27 million people. With our population of 62 million people, this means that there are over 35 million potential voters out there whose insights we are waiting to see.

Who benefits from these polls?

Who is conducting these polls and who stands to benefit from this information? Well, one political party in question, the Democratic Alliance (DA), uses these polling figures to tell the country, through their campaigns, that South Africans are looking for a change and they see the DA as the change South Africa needs. The question that we need to be asking is: who are the people behind the companies conducting these polls? Who are the companies conducting these polls and what are their vested interests in the insights that they are reporting on?

Who are the companies conducting these polls and what are their vested interests in the insights that they are reporting on?

There are a few companies in South Africa that conduct polls, such as Victory Research, The Social Research Foundation, The Brenthurst Foundation and Ipsos.

But just a cursory inspection of these polls reveals a direct link between the DA and the people who work at Victory Research. In a viral clip from Mail and Guardian, we see that the managing partner of Victory Research, Johan Van Der Berg, is a member of the DA and is also conducting polls for the DA as well through his company. One would easily assume that whatever insights you will be getting from Victory Research will be skewed towards the view of the party its founding managing partner belongs to, the DA.

Polls vs Reality

When we look at the electoral performance of the DA, what is reflected on the ground is a lack of confidence from the electorate. From their high point in 2016, the DA has decreased their electoral base since then. In the last eight years since 2016, the performance of the DA has decreased drastically and they had to form a Moonshot pact to consolidate an ideological alliance. How can a party that garnered 20.77% of the votes in 2019 dare say that it will win these elections? It’s implausible, at least not without divine intervention.

Polls conducted by internal DA research are strategically dropped at key moments, the most ridiculous of which was the poll that said the DA was just 7% behind the ANC. This poll was publicised at the opening of registration weekend. It served a propaganda purpose, rather than being the finger on the pulse of South Africans in general.

It was reported on in IOL, and News24, as well as the DA’s client media, like PoliticsWeb and BizNews. The BizNews podcast coverage of this with the DA’s internal pollster Greg Kumbrock gave a rambling and incoherent filibuster as to their polling methodology. Rather than contextualise who would benefit from the publication of these polls, media houses published the DA’s press release, largely uninterrogated.

This is the very issue that I have with polls in this country. We have a population of just over 60 million people. In a country that has such a low voter turnout, one needs to know the reasons why that happens. We need communications companies and tech companies to come to the fore and use the resources that they have to get these true insights, and not produce narrow polls that only supply the answers that they wish to hear. It's not about calling people who have cell phones to ask them questions. Chances are that the people who are polled come from areas where there is abundant internet penetration, and is there some semblance of service delivery based on how white- I mean, how affluent your area is.

Who we need to hear from are the people from Kwadlangezwa, eNgcobo, eMakhayakude, and eMhlababuyalingana. The poorest among us need to be included.

Polls should serve participatory democracy, and not be used to subvert it. Whatever the way forward, part of voter education should be to interrogate polling data, the methodology, as well as doing an analysis of what interests are served by polling.

Visit IOL’s Elections 2024 Portal for more.

* Ayanda Sishi-Wigzell is a political commentator and a radio presenter

** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of IOL or Independent Media.