2019 Elections: Analysis

Some take-aways from the year’s by-elections should set alarm bells ringing for political parties

Julius Malema (Photo: Leila Dougan) / Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane, December 2018 (Photo: Gallo Images / Netwerk24 / Deaan Vivier) / African National Congress President Cyril Ramaphosa, 12 January 2019. (Photo: Gallo Images / Phill Magakoe)

With less than a month to go to the 8 May elections, politicians’ campaign trails are criss-crossing the country to get to voters in their homes, at taxi ranks, community halls and just about everywhere else possible. Although by-elections cannot be firm categoric predictors of voting behaviour, there are some interesting trends: incumbents are in a stronger position, but voter turn-out is key. And there’s always room for surprise.

By-elections are a reflection of public opinion at a specific given time. They are indicators rather than a definitive picture. But there are some take-aways from the past year’s by-elections that should set alarm bells ringing for political parties ahead of the 8 May 2019 elections.

Broadly speaking the political party that held the seat continued to do so after the by-election, according to the by-election results available on the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) website. But within this trend, overall the DA has increased its percentage support in by-elections by getting its supporters out to vote, while the ANC held on to the seat with less support compared to what was achieved in the 2016 local government election.

That decline in ANC voting support was highlighted in a whopper result in the 13 February 2019 by-elections in six wards in Galeshewe township in Kimberley: the ANC may have held their seats, but with a significantly reduced polling support of between 10 to 15 percentage points.

Within this snapshot, voter turn-out is an important factor. While voter turn-out in by-elections is traditionally significantly lower than even local government elections, never mind national elections that reach into the 70 percentages, it remains nevertheless a weather vane of voters’ sentiments.

In Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal by-elections, turn-out usually hovers around the 50% mark, or even higher. Although there are exceptions like the 19% turn-out in Wednesday’s by-election in Ward 9 in central Stellenbosch, where the DA won with 98,7%, or 379 votes against the ANC’s five.

In comparison, in Gauteng, particularly Johannesburg, by-elections over the past year recorded only into the 20 percentage points turn-outs in ANC stronghold wards. A similar pattern is echoing also across key ANC support bases in Limpopo and Mpumalanga, where the January 2019 by-elections retained the ANC, but with up to 17 percentage points less support as happened in Thaba Chweu. But it seems the Eastern Cape is bucking the trend since late 2018 as the ANC support has increased compared to the 2016 election outcome as happened in the Great Kei in November 2018.

And while there can not be a direct extrapolation from by-elections to national and provincial polls, the ANC has cause to be concerned, even as its top officials are criss-crossing South Africa to directly interact with voters. It’s getting voters to the polls on election day that counts – as the ANC’s loss of Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay in the 2016 municipal poll showed.

The old rule of thumb holds – opposition parties benefit from a higher voter turn-out. The DA historically has been good at getting its supporters to the polls. Come 8 May the spotlight also will fall on the EFF’s self-described “ground forces” to see if they can galvanise supporters to the polls.

A quick glance survey of by-election results over the past year shows some other interesting trends reflecting political dynamics within provincial contexts.

In KwaZulu-Natal, the IFP lost to the ANC four of the various of the past year’s by-elections, but gained at least one seat off the ANC at Mtubatuba in the May 2018 by-election. The outcome of the 27 March 2019 by-election at AbaQulusi (Mondlo) was tight, with a one percentage point difference. The ANC won with 44%, up from 32% support in the 2016 local government election, as the IFP saw its 52% support drop to 43%.

It could well be a case of the IFP having plateaued in gains, mostly from the National Freedom Party (NFP) that seems to struggle given the long illness of its founding president Zanele Magwaza Msibi, who left the IFP ahead of the 2014 elections. The NFP did not participate in the 2016 municipal poll, having failed to pay the necessary election deposits. It’s understood much of the NFP support is breaking up between the IFP and ANC. Or it could be the ANC’s concerted 8 May election campaign, that has effectively been under way since January, paying off.

In the Western Cape hinterlands ANC efforts failed over two marginal seats as voters turned to the DA, as recently as Wednesday in Hessequa where just short of six percentage points meant the seat went from the ANC to the DA. In January 2018 the ANC lost the Bergriver by-election again with a tight margin of some 117 votes.

The ANC’s previous gains in by-electoral support that reduced the DA as happened in Saldanha and Oudtshoorn by-elections of May 2018, is evaporating. Earlier this week one Western Cape ANC insider said the party had hit the campaign trail hard – “We hope we have done enough,” was how it was put – in what turned out to be a replay of the January 2019 by-election where the ANC failed to clinch its targets even though several activists’ festive season leave was cancelled.

And then there are the curiosities. In the 27 March 2019 by-election in Ngqeleni, Eastern Cape, the United Democratic Movement (UDM) and EFF lost votes, down to 30 and 43 respectively, with the debut of African Transformation Movement (ATM) led by preacher and fronted by Mzwanele Manyi, the former ANC director-general turned Gupta media mogul and transformation lobbyist.

It scored some 30%, or 498 votes, but that ward is on the home ground of ATM president Vuyolwethu Zungula and, according to UDM leader Bantu Holomisa’s tweet, the home of ATM founder Bishop Ceasar Nongqunga. The ANC held the ward with 1,073 votes, representing a 16 percentage point drop to 65,2% support compared to the 81,4% scored in the 2016 municipal poll. The party made an impact, unlike in the other few by-elections where its candidates received a handful of votes, according to IEC results.

But it appears that religion-based parties may well be an alternative for voters not keen to cast their ballots for the big three, the ANC, DA and EFF.

The January 2019 by-election in Bonteheuwel on the Cape Flats, saw the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) gain an unprecedented 30% support, even as the DA retained the seat with a much-reduced polling support of 61,8%, down from the 81% achieved in the 2016 municipal poll. Local dynamics and dissatisfaction influenced that vote, according to one insider, but a glance at other by-elections where the ACDP fielded a candidate shows it did better.

And also doing significantly better is the Freedom Front Plus, who late in 2018 launched its Fight Back campaign for the May 2019 elections. That campaign, according to one FF+ MP, was aimed at disenchanted DA voters. The 27 March 2019 by-election result in the two wards in Gauteng’s Mogale City seems to validate that approach: the FF+ boosted its previous polling support of 6% to 29% and 28%. Whether that’s enough to translate into more seats in provincial legislatures and Parliament remains to be seen.

By-elections are indicators of public opinion, but are not a given. Come Election Day, it’s up to South African’s to decide on the next five years. DM