South Africa

South Africa

Analysis: Currently undecided voters could decide SA’s future in 2019 and beyond

Analysis: Currently undecided voters could decide SA’s future in 2019 and beyond

If one is foolish enough to try to determine certain outcomes from our current political equations, a number of important variables will become apparent. There are so many moving parts that it is difficult to assign values to any of these variables. But one of the most important questions that could answer what will happen over the next five years revolves around a sort of “missing” constituency in our politics. These are people who used to vote, but have stopped casting their ballot. If one can identify these people, and work out what their interests are, it may be possible to determine how the country will swing in 2019 and beyond. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

Stories around the polling currently conducted by the two major parties, the ANC and the DA, abound. As this data is not published, it is advisable to treat it with some caution. But, from what can be pieced together, it is clear that the ANC is currently somewhere in the zone between 45% and 55%. In other words, it is vulnerable. But it is not yet clear who could take over. Certainly, those who believe the DA could lead a coalition government are likely to be disappointed. In one publicly available poll, published by IPSOS six weeks ago, the ANC gets 47%. But the DA gets just 21%.

The number that stands out is that 24% of respondents opted for a “don’t know” reply. That means more people are undecided than those that support the DA.

At the same time, it is obvious from election voting patterns that the number of people who don’t vote has increased dramatically. In 1994 it seemed almost everyone who was eligible voted. That number has since dropped steadily. For some, it’s just a result of the normalisation of our politics; many countries have many people who don’t vote and never will. It also appears true that there are particularly high polls in the suburbs, the strongholds of the DA. This is because people there, often middle-class, usually white, are driven to vote for the DA by the behaviour of President Jacob Zuma. But there are millions of people who used to vote for the ANC during the Mbeki era who don’t vote for the DA, may have voted for Cope in 2009, and now don’t – or won’t –go to the polling stations anymore.

Perhaps the biggest question in our politics is what kind of candidate they are actually looking for.

It is surely obvious that a large proportion of those who picked “don’t know” are waiting for the ANC to decide who is going to lead it. They don’t feel comfortable deciding until then. Considering that the policy choices facing the ANC are stark, and the choice is often viewed as one between what could be called “Zuma-style corruption” and “reform”, waiting for this decision is entirely rational. But it must also be that many of these people are turned off by Zuma. And that means that it is difficult to imagine them coming back to an ANC led by Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma.

So what does this mean for our politics, and how could they be drawn back into the arena?

Certainly, this is a constituency with some economic power. Politics usually matters more to the poor. The richer you are, the less you rely on government services. But there is also an inverse effect. The poorer you are, the less you trust the system (it won’t have worked for you …), and so the less interested you may be. That said, it seems that many people who live, say, in Soweto, are waiting for something new.

At the same time, the proportion of young people, those under 30, who can vote is getting higher and higher. Much is said about the power they may wield, and their supposed lack of loyalty to the ANC. They obviously still suffer from the legacy of economic apartheid, but may feel little loyalty to a leadership of the ANC that is closer to 70 than it is to 30. And it is true in most democracies that the younger you are the less likely you are to vote – you simply don’t care enough. However, young people can be convinced to vote if there is someone who sets them alight politically. Think Barrack Obama’s 2008 election.

This all suggests that there is a huge constituency for someone to take advantage of. The person many think would be able to do this is Julius Malema and the Economic Freedom Fighters. But the electoral evidence suggests that this is not happening. It also suggests that none of the current parties could do it. Despite the best efforts of DA leader Mmusi Maimane, the party is not picking up this support.

It seems likely that this group needs a party that best mirrors their aspirations. The most likely aspiration is to do with jobs and simple desire for a better life. Or, as Bill Clinton used to put it, “It’s the economy, Stupid”. At the moment no one appears to offer solutions to the serious economic problems we face and have the prospect of implementing them. In the past, it was thought that a party would need “struggle legitimacy” to be a contender. This may be less of an issue as the country changes. And if the ANC continues to create a deluge of corruption headlines, this may become more of a hindrance.

A big question to ask is whether this means that a new party that splits off from the ANC could take charge of this constituency. There will certainly be people in the ANC and the SACP (and surely Cosatu) who feel that it could. They would believe that the real problem in the ANC is Zuma and the people aligned with him, and that is what is preventing former ANC voters from casting their ballot in that direction. It would seem likely that they are right, to a point. There must surely be voters who simply want the ANC to change direction.

However, there are surely other potential voters who don’t like any of the parties, and are fed up. With them, it might be more difficult for a new entrant. They don’t know what kind of constituency there is. The fact that several of the new parties over the last few decades have been the result of internal ANC disputes over power (Cope, the EFF) rather than issues of political principal (arguably the UDM) shows this.

It is probably fair to say that there is no such thing as the mythical floating voter in our politics, no particular group who can swing an election this way or that. Our society is too unequal for that. It is much more likely that in the end this constituency of “undecideds” would need several political parties through which to express themselves. This in turn suggests that over time, despite our recent history, we may in fact end up with greater political choice than we have at the moment. This is typical of political systems with proportional representation. They tend to end up both with coalition governments, and several smaller parties with a couple of bigger ones. All of this also suggests that our politics is beginning to be driven more by structure than by our history, as it was in the past.

These changes used to seem to lie in our longer-term future. But, if you accept that what is happening in the ANC at the moment is the result of the final break-up of an anti-apartheid coalition that is in the end inevitable, then we could find that this future is closer than we thought. DM

Photo: An Election Commission worker tears a ballot paper at a voting station during local municipal elections in Meyerton, Midvaal Municipality, south of Johannesburg, South Africa, 03 August 2016. EPA/KEVIN SUTHERLAND

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