IT WAS neither a game changer nor a watershed. But closer examination of the numbers that emerged from last week’s elections provide plenty to chew on — for party strategists as much as the psephologists among us.
If the elections offer us any single clear message, it is that the African National Congress (ANC) electoral brand remains almost as robust as ever and apparently resilient in the face of the numerous challenges it faced coming into the campaign: less united than before; unable to count on the unequivocal support of the union movement; a depleted ANC Youth League, post-Julius Malema; and with serious question marks about the probity of its leader.
Uncongenial though the thought may be, the ANC might now believe that it is unbeatable and can win in any circumstances.
Happily, there are significant people in the ANC leadership who understand the dangers of such arrogance. Instead of complacency, the ruling party would be well advised to scratch beneath the surface, because its result is nowhere near as convincing as it seems.
Acutely discontented with Zuma’s leadership, the ANC in Gauteng is far less in control than before: its share of the vote in SA’s economic hub has fallen about 15 percentage points in 10 years, from 68.8% in the 2004 election to 53.6% now. There is the very real possibility that the ANC will lose its majorities in the metros of Johannesburg, Pretoria and Port Elizabeth in the 2016 municipal elections. The political consequences of this will be significant, and two years is a short time to fix the situation.
Further, in eight of the nine provinces, the ANC’s vote went down by an average of 3 percentage points (and 6 percentage points in five traditional ANC strongholds — Free State, Gauteng, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and North West). This will be cause for concern. But once again KwaZulu-Natal served the ANC and Zuma well. In 2009, the ANC’s share of the vote in KwaZulu-Natal went up more than 16 percentage points, while it went down an average 8 percentage points in the other eight provinces. This time it, it stayed firm (and, in fact, went up 0.55 percentage points). Given that 219,000 of the 722,000 extra votes that were cast were in KwaZulu-Natal and turnout there was 76%, significantly higher than the national average of 73%, clearly the ANC was very effective at getting its vote out in that province.
The Limpopo result, where the ANC share of the vote fell more than 6 percentage points, may, when combined with the low turnout, have cost the ANC as many as 230,000 votes or 1.6% of the national share of the vote (or, put another way, seven seats in the National Assembly). This was almost certainly a result of the “Malema effect” — the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) came second in the province, with 10.7% of the vote. Limpopo is Malema’s home ground.
Third, there is some evidence to suggest that the ANC vote increasingly relies on support in rural areas compared with urban/metro areas. For example, in Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth), the ANC’s vote was 49.17% compared with its overall provincial vote in the Eastern Cape of 70.75%; in Mangaung, 64.11% against a provincial vote of 69.71%; and in Polokwane, 67.94% compared with a provincial vote of 78.97%.
Last, despite the fact that there were more than 2-million more voters registered this year, and bearing in mind the demise of the Congress of the People (COPE), whose 7% in 2009 had come mainly at the expense of the ANC, the fact that the ANC totalled 214,000 fewer voters than in 2009 is notable.
Established democracies such as the US would give their right arms for the turnout figure of 72.8% that SA achieved last week, but it was down 5 percentage points on 2009, representing 56.6% of the eligible voting population.
Hence, the ANC won the national election with the votes of about 35% of eligible voters. In contrast to the ANC, the Democratic Alliance (DA) gained 1.14-million votes — a 38.89% increase. The DA’s final result of 22.23% of the vote is a tad underwhelming, as this total is slightly less than it obtained across the country in the municipal elections of 2011 (when it achieved just less than 24%).
Putting aside the hype and hubris of an election campaign, the DA should in the cold light of day be able to remind itself that this year was intended as a milestone election — to build a platform for the 2016 municipal elections and maybe a stronger tilt at national power in 2019, rather than as an endpoint.
After last week, the former looks even more plausible but the latter less so. As the 20% swing from ANC to DA that the DA would require in 2019 is unthinkable in most democracies, it is beyond reasonable ambition now; the DA really needed to narrow the gap to at least 35% this year.
In the Western Cape, the DA won decisively, increasing its share of the vote from 51% to almost 60%, though this was mainly down to hoovering up voters from the defunct Independent Democrats and the diminished COPE than making inroads into ANC support, which, unlike Gauteng, remained stable, notwithstanding another anaemic campaign from the Western Cape ANC.
A big question for the biggest opposition is whether the DA has diversified its support base and made progress in winning black votes, whether middle or working class: did the DA do more than simply mop up the leftovers of COPE and the Independent Democrats, while disaffected ANC voters departed for the EFF rather than the DA?
In Gauteng and the Western Cape, the DA appears to have emulated, and even increased, the modest inroads — from a low base — that it made into working-class township areas in the 2011 municipal elections.
For example, in voting districts in Alexandra in Johannesburg, such as Seventh Day Adventist and 3 Square Grounds, or Atamelang Primary School in Naledi, Soweto, not only did the COPE vote from 2009 (typically 7%-8%) collapse, but the ANC typically dropped 10 or more percentage points, with the EFF and DA sharing the combined spoils. This means that in terms of winning black “township” support, as in the 2011 municipal polls, the DA has typically doubled or even trebled its support, but, as I say, from an extremely low base — from 36 votes (2%) to 85 (7.5%) at the Seventh Day Adventist voting district, from 33 (1.68%) to 113 (6.87%) at 3 Square Grounds, and from 14 (1%) to 109 (7%) at Atamelang Primary School.
Meanwhile, the EFF secured 22%, 15% and 12% respectively.
In Khayelitsha in Cape Town, the DA increased its vote from 1% or 2% to as much as 6%-10%, but as the ANC vote generally held up in Cape Town “townships”, the DA gains were simply mopping up COPE votes.
Both the ANC and the DA have plenty of self-reflection to do. Questions of leadership, strategy and policy should all be at the front of their minds. The South African electorate is showing that votes are not so easily won.
The red-bereted EFF has no such worries. No doubt savouring the fruits of their ride into Parliament, Malema and his motley crew must now decide if they are a serious political party or an unseemly riot of proto-fascists. Either way, and before they get carried away with their 15 minutes of fame, they would do well to reflect on what became of COPE, not to mention Agang SA and the Independent Democrats. Above all, opposition parties need to reflect on the overarching question: why does the ANC continue to appeal to a majority of voters?
• Calland is a political analyst based at the University of Cape Town and author of The Zuma Years: SA’s Changing Face of Power.