Opinionista Ian Ollis 20 May 2014

The role of largesse in elections 2014

Election 2014 has come and gone and statisticians and commentators are assessing the damage. In my view, commentators are discounting the role of the voter perception of largesse, and who is able to dispense it.

When one assesses the broad brush strokes of how the voters shifted, we can say that: The ANC lost 3% of the national vote, particularly in Gauteng; the DA grew by almost 1.2 million votes, mostly in Gauteng, the Western Cape, and KZN; the EFF came almost from nowhere and received over one million votes; and smaller parties mostly collapsed or struggled to make significant inroads. It is of course normal for extreme left or right parties to win big when times are tough economically. The far right in SA did not grow, but if we paint Julius as far left, then we do see that happening. However, that doesn’t explain the lack of a more marked drop in the ANC support or the continued growth of the DA in the Western Cape and Gauteng.

What is clear from voting patterns in SA is that the incumbent is usually favoured. The DA in the Western Cape, and the ANC most other places. The possible exception is Gauteng, where the voters are better educated and probably more wealthy than elsewhere, with greater opportunities. If one looks at a graph of ANC, DA, IFP and COPE support, it appears that trends continued as before. Nkandla, e-tolls and corruption seem to have made very little impact on voters except perhaps in Gauteng – the national trend of a slow ANC drop in support just continued.

Why would the incumbent attract such support from voters? Much ink has been spilled discussing the racial voting patterns in South Africa based on the legacy of Apartheid, often referred to as the “Apartheid Dividend”. This is undoubtedly still a factor in SA politics. Many so called “coloured” and “black” South Africans tell me anecdotally about their sense of betrayal for not putting their cross next to the ANC, which they are doing in greater numbers. The prevailing meta-narrative of SA politics remains that “the ANC liberated us”, even though many can point to the contribution of so many non-ANC aligned people in bringing about the new South Africa, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. But the ANC won the ideological war in 1994 by successfully branding themselves the party of liberation and erasing much of the history of the UDF, PAC, AZAPO, Black Sash, End Conscription Campaign, Liberal Party, PFP and key clergy, as well as other NGOs.

Yet this would not explain the large increase of the DA in the Western Cape or Gauteng. Many in my party would like to believe that the DA record of service delivery has impressed voters, and, measured objectively, that service delivery is there for all to read, see and evaluate. We would also like to believe that the voters in Gauteng and around the country chose the DA because of the offer of a plan to create six million real jobs, and a manifesto full of costed plans to improve SA. Those, too, are there, but I’m doubtful that this moved a full 1.2 million votes. Some would like to believe that voters moved because of the signs of government corruption and mismanagement, such as Nkandla, or the forcing of e-tolls on Gauteng and perhaps elsewhere. The growth of EFF seems to indicate unhappiness with the ANC and there is some truth to that. But why is the shift then so uneven? There are no e-tolls in the Western Cape yet, and all voters see Nkandla on television and radio, yet the moves in some provinces are much larger than others.

However, very few of those shifting votes moved to other opposition parties. Why did the PAC, the FF+, the IFP, or the UDM not massively increase their share of the voting cake? Yet the DA (and EFF) grew significantly and the ANC held on to much of its support.

It is my opinion that one of the most significant factors influencing the masses of voters in 2014 election is not corruption, e-tolls, the legacy of Apartheid or Nkandla, but rather the perception of who has the largesse at their disposal and how the voting public might benefit from that largesse if they voted for a particular political party. This would explain why the DA grew in the Western Cape and why the ANC remained so strong in most places it governed previously. Julius’ EFF talks all the time about the perceived largesse – where it is, who owns it and how the EFF will take it and give it to others. Political parties that are perceived as having no largesse to dispense did very badly in these elections. What would Agang or Cope or the PAC or AZAPO dish out if we vote for them? Agang even clarified that they promised NO jobs! The only place this appeared to possibly be different is Gauteng – the more urban, more educated, wealthier province. People think slightly differently in Gauteng. Nkandla and corruption, e-tolls and policy issues seemed to matter just a little more and the DA and EFF campaigned there a little harder.

Essentially voters are voting their own self-interest. Not their future policy interest, but their “jobs, and houses and food parcels now” interest. The flipside of the largesse coin is, of course, patronage. He who dispenses the largesse can expect loyalty in return. Stick with us and we’ll look after you. It’s this ugly underbelly, which I believe we will in future need to guard against most, in government and within political parties.

However, there is a good side to this. The legacy of Apartheid and our national obsession with race may just be finally subsiding to be replaced by our new priority: Bringing home the bacon… Any bacon! DM

Ian M. Ollis is a returning DA MP and can be followed on Twitter @ianollis


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