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The state of play in SA as campaign electioneering rises to a political crescendo

The state of play in SA as campaign electioneering rises to a political crescendo
(Photo: Reuters / Nic Bothma / TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

With a last burst of election rah-rah at rallies this weekend, political parties must hope that they have done enough in this pivotal and hotly contested poll. On Wednesday next week, it’s over to the voters.

Leaders of political parties have criss-crossed South Africa to hold meetings on street corners in townships, dorpies and cities, led marches against all manner of issues and knocked on doors. It has been an intense campaign, regardless of party colours. 

Pundits have long predicted the governing ANC would drop below 50% and lose its majority, and so coalition talk has tailed the campaigning alongside opposition parties’ determined boosting of their chances at the hustings. 

But the devil is in the details – from geography to voter turnout and voter sentiment. 

The shifting voter outlook has been fundamental to the ANC campaign that has stepped up in intensity in recent weeks. Traditionally that’s how the governing party has galvanised enthusiasm, and thus voting support. That this is working is reflected in ongoing polling that has lifted support for the ANC a handful of percentage points already.  

The possibility that the ANC may just squeak in with 51% can’t be ruled out. It would be a 6.5 percentage point drop from the ANC’s 57.5% support in 2019, which itself was a significant drop from the 62.15% gained in the 2014 elections, according to the Independent Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC). Still, clinching even a 51% majority that allows the ANC to form the next government would be proclaimed as success.

On the campaign trail, personal contact is a proven ANC tactic, as is fielding President Cyril Ramaphosa as point man on the meet-and-greet and on the posters that finally appeared in strategic spots. 

Ramaphosa remains more popular than the ANC itself, and trust in political leadership – the Ramaphosa factor – is a crucial determinant in voters’ choices in research recently released by the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Social Development in Africa. 

But the ANC’s election support aims are misguided, and modest. 

Much of the governing party’s election calculations seem based on offsetting losses in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng by boosting support to 80% or more in the Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga and Limpopo, according to the leaked audio of April’s National Executive Committee election meeting. 

But an election analysis shows the ANC has never hit 80% support in the Eastern Cape, getting close only in 2004 with 79.27%. The last time the ANC hit 80% plus in Mpumalanga and Limpopo was in 2009 – 85.55% in Mpumalanga and 84.8% in Limpopo, according to the IEC. 

Since then, their support has consistently dropped in those identified key provinces, as in others. Contributing factors include ANC factional battles, increasing corruption in government, and State Capture, while basic service delivery from water and sanitation to effective community-centred policing has declined. 

The rotational power cuts that have left households and businesses without electricity for up to 12 hours a day in Stage 6 load shedding also helped turn sentiment negative.

The 2024 elections, different to previous ones, have emphasised provincial dynamics. Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal have emerged as potential kingmakers.  

But while Gauteng dynamics that have already brought the ANC young Turks under Premier Panyaza Lesufi together with the EFF are likely to be limited to South Africa’s economic heartland, KwaZulu-Natal dynamics could significantly impact the national scene. 

That’s partly because the IFP has already indicated its willingness to participate in a government of national unity. This opens the door to an ANC-IFP deal, particularly if the ANC nationally comes in below 47% support, which would be too little to take control with just a handful of pliant one- or two-seat parties. 

In this scenario, the IFP’s estimated 6% polling would ensure a rather uncomplicated cooperative coalition arrangement in both KwaZulu-Natal and nationally that would put the ANC in the lead. 

The IFP has nostalgic ties to the KwaZulu-Natal premiership, and previously from 1999 the ANC accommodated this, even though it won the province. 

The impact of the MK party headed by ex-president Jacob Zuma remains to be seen. Whether the party’s leadership battles have dented support will unfold on election day, but Zuma has been a pull factor in the ethnic vote in KwaZulu-Natal – when he was ANC president support shot up to 62.9% in 2009 and 64.5% in 2014, but dropped back to 54.2% in 2019, according to IEC statistics.

Initial polling put the MK party around 20 percentage points, similar to the ANC and IFP in KwaZulu-Natal, with EFF support stalling. 

The IFP taking its polling support into a government of national unity with the ANC would in effect render any opposition KwaZulu-Natal government impossible. Among the Multi-Party Charter opposition parties, the IFP is the largest. Without it, the around 40% combined charter support would significantly drop, making an opposition government most likely out of reach.  

But that impossibility would have been a reality anyway on the back of the DA’s insistence that uMgeni Mayor Chris Pappas be premier. Such hard-line attitudes would not be new. In 2021 a handful of municipalities could have come into opposition control had DA Federal Council Chairperson Helen Zille, who led negotiations, not insisted the DA had to be in charge as the biggest party, according to political insiders. 

While the DA internal polling earlier in 2024 hit 27% nationally, pundits’ estimates of support hovered around 21% to 22%, indicating a lack of significant growth over time.  

The 2024 elections will show the impact of the DA strategy of consolidating the base around strict market liberalism. In a campaign built on fearmongering over a so-called Doomsday ANC-EFF coalition, the DA’s flag-burning advert triggered pushback from among key voting constituencies, including disenchanted ANC voters. 

But Zille, in an interview with Newzroom Afrika broadcast on Tuesday, 21 May, stood by the advert, saying it’s “not gone wrong” for the party. 

The recent University of Johannesburg research on reasons voters chose to cast their ballots the way they do, shows only 24% of respondents said effective governance was the decider. That would indicate the DA motto of where it governs it governs best has not gained the traction needed to shift votes.  

If the DA loses voting support nationally, it must face ditching national leader John Steenhuisen. If not, inevitable accusations of racism would follow as ex-leader Mmusi Maimane was made to fall on his sword when the DA lost 1.46% support in the 2019 elections.  

But anything better than the 20.7% support of 2019 will have the DA claiming success, even if its opposition coalition Moonshot Pact is shot down.

Election day resources

Somewhere in all this, Rise Mzansi is being closely watched as a rising political newcomer. Smaller political parties like the Freedom Front Plus and national elections debutante ActionSA must find their feet. 

The Patriotic Alliance relies on ballots actually being cast by its targeted voting base, working-class voters from Cape Town’s Mitchells Plain, to Westbury in Johannesburg, and to the northern parts of Nelson Mandela Bay Metro.

In South Africa’s 30th year of constitutional democracy, amid tough socioeconomic circumstances, deepening inequality and tumultuous global geopolitics, the 2024 elections test everyone as never before. DM

Read more in Daily Maverick: Elections 2024


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