In May this year South Africans went to the polls to vote in the sixth national and provincial elections of the democratic era. The election was a test of strength for the governing African National Congress (ANC), whose electoral support has declined over the last decade.
The election affirmed the pattern of ANC decline, with its worst electoral performance to date. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), founded in July 2013 by expelled former ANC Youth League President, Julius Malema, and which describes itself as a far-left political party, saw growth in its support. Meanwhile the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA), a broadly liberal party, saw a decline in support.
But who voted for these parties and why?
To answer this question, the Centre for Social Change at the University of Johannesburg surveyed over 5,000 voters in an exit poll on the day of the election. Twenty three sites across eight of South Africa’s nine provinces were surveyed, with most sites concentrated in Gauteng, the economic hub of the country. The survey focused primarily on townships and informal settlements, whose residents are mostly poor and black; 91% of respondents were black African, and 22% lived in informal dwellings or shacks.
The survey asked a range of demographic questions – such as age, gender, race, ethnicity and employment status – as well as questions about participation in protests, and who respondents voted for and why.
The survey sample was not nationally representative. But, the areas chosen provide a crucial insight into the historic heartlands of support for the governing ANC.
Who votes for what party?
The survey asked about all political parties but we concentrated our analysis on the three largest political parties: the ANC, the DA and the EFF.
As the ANC continues to experience declining electoral support, our survey provides some understanding of the patterns that lie beneath deepening electoral competition in South Africa. Age, gender, ethnicity, receipt of government benefits, and participation in protest were all found to significantly correlate with voters’ choices of different parties.
Our analysis shows that the ANC and the DA secured their greatest support among older voters, while the EFF secured the greatest support among younger voters, as one might expect.
In line with our previous surveys, we found that women were more likely than men to vote for the ANC. Nearly two-thirds of women (64%) voted for the ANC, compared to only 55% of men.
Nearly half of all DA voters surveyed had full time jobs compared to about a third of ANC and EFF voters.
The data also revealed interesting ethnic differences. IsiXhosa speakers were most likely to vote for the ANC while Sepedi speakers were most likely to vote for the EFF.
In previous surveys, we found that the ANC, then under the leadership of President Jacob Zuma, drew particularly strong support from isiZulu speakers. But in this round of the survey, we observed that while support for the ANC was still strong among isiZulu speakers, they were also the most likely to vote for opposition parties beyond the EFF and DA.
The findings also reveal that those who had reported taking part in some form of protest action over the last five years were more likely to vote for opposition parties.
Why do people vote?
The survey included a series of six questions that asked respondents to rate the reasons that they came to vote by “a lot”, ‘“a bit” or “not at all”. The two most influential reasons were “because it is my responsibility to vote” and “to improve the economy”, with 90% and 87% of respondents, respectively, saying that these factors influenced them “a lot”.
Not surprisingly, different reasons influenced voters who supported different parties. Nearly two thirds of ANC voters, compared to only half of DA voters, said that the prospect of government benefits influenced their decision to vote.
In contrast, about three quarters of EFF voters agreed that “land redistribution” influenced their decision to vote, compared to less than half of DA voters.
Explaining voter choices
The survey also asked people to explain why they voted for a particular party. Personal identification, including reasons based on a sense of trust, loyalty or a personal affinity with a party, was most common among ANC voters.
DA and EFF voters most frequently expressed a desire for “change” as influencing who they voted for. Although it must be noted that a high proportion of ANC voters also expressed the idea of “change” as motivating their decision to vote for the ANC.
A fifth (20%) of EFF voters explained their vote choice in terms of their satisfaction with the party’s policies. This could be related to the EFF’s manifesto pledges on the issue of land redistribution. We found that land redistribution was a strong motivator for bringing EFF supporters out to vote. Meanwhile, 17% of DA voters explained their vote choice as being related to the desire to increase electoral competition and to put pressure on the governing party.
Our survey was also able to give insight into whether government benefits, in the form of social grants or government housing, may have played a role in influencing party choice. Our findings show that social grant recipients were statistically more likely to vote for the ANC. Receipt of a government house, however, did not have a statistically significant relationship to voting for the party.
South African electoral politics
The fault lines identified in the survey may deepen, to the extent that political parties emphasise them in campaign messaging.
At the same time, the salience of factors such as social grants and land redistribution highlight that party policies and performance in government matter as well. As electoral competition continues to escalate in South Africa, it will be useful to monitor the relative significance of, and interaction between identities, policy preferences, and government performance.