Everything to lose for the DA in the battle for the heart and soul of SA

2019-03-01 05:00
South Africans wait in a long queue to cast their vote at Brazzaville informal settlement on May 7, 2014 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Lefty Shivambu)

South Africans wait in a long queue to cast their vote at Brazzaville informal settlement on May 7, 2014 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Lefty Shivambu)

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With all the major political parties having launched their election manifestos the table is set for arguably one of the most important elections post democracy.

Coming in swinging was the ANC with their manifesto launch which they combined for effect with this year's January 8 celebrations at Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban.

In a neatly printed, glossy pamphlet, the ruling party proclaimed its election promises: more housing, better education, jobs, land… the usual wish list. Except this year, voters also get Cyril Ramaphosa as president, a factor pollsters predict will make a significant impact for the ANC.

In fact, Ramaphosa might be the ANC's only hope of luring lost supporters back to the party, given its years of poor performance – the curse of the incumbent – and its dirty laundry being aired in a very public manner at the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture.

While the last "nine wasted years" under former president Jacob Zuma didn't do the party any favours, the ANC's support among eligible voters has decreased drastically over the last two decades. It may have gotten 62% of the voting share in the last national election, but only managed to attract 35% support among the voting age population, down from 53.8% in 1994.

In actual votes, the ANC received 2% less votes in 2014 than it did in 2009, which, considering the population growth and increase in registered voters, is a dismal performance.

In contrast, the DA has managed to mobilise a bigger proportion of its relatively smaller support base, steadily growing its share of the vote. In 2014 the party received 1,1 million votes more than in 2009 – a 39% increase. In the local government elections in 2016 it garnered just shy of 27% of the national vote (by wards), held the ANC to an historic low of under 55% and snatched the mayoralties in four of the five major metros.

Significantly, the DA grew its support among black South Africans from 0.8% in 2009 to approximately 6% in 2014; 40% of these votes were won in Gauteng.

But the party has been struggling to find the sweet spot with its messaging in the same way their anti-Zuma campaign did, potentially alienating supporters both to the right and left. After years of painstakingly building its election base, a slide in support in the upcoming elections would be a major setback for the DA.

A phenomenon that could work in the DA's favour, but could also turn against the party, is the overall decline in party identification or partisanship among South Africans, in pace with a trend seen worldwide. Partisanship has traditionally driven voter behaviour. It is also what has sustained the ANC's electoral dominance until now, despite its dismal performance in government.

According to the most recent Afrobarometer survey, only 45% of South Africans said they felt close to a political party in 2018. This means almost six out of 10 South Africans don't feel close to any political party, up from four out of 10 in previous years.

Add to that another major injection of "born frees" who are now eligible to vote, and the waters become even murkier. These young people are typically not party identifiers and do not necessarily associate with the ANC's struggle legacy.

"This means that people don't necessarily go into the elections with their minds made up," says Dr Collette Schulz-Herzenberg from Stellenbosch University's department of political science. 

"If I'm not a party identifier then I tend to watch the party campaigns more closely, make up my mind much later, and I'm more likely not to vote at all. People who used to identify with the ANC have gradually become more disillusioned and moved away from the party due to poor performance."

Schulz-Herzenberg predicts that party identification will likely continue to drop dramatically in the next 20 years, arguably creating fertile ground for opposition parties to win more support as voters will be shopping around.

"The ANC has been relying on longstanding factors like party identification, which is changing. There is a cognitively aware rational voter out there who is looking at the stakes. I would argue that this election is almost nonpartisan. This is about the struggle for the heart and soul of South Africa."

It also means voters who previously identified with the DA who might feel frustrated with the party's internal struggles would vote ANC to strengthen Ramaphosa's hand – as some have argued they should.

This year's election results may therefore very well be determined by which of the respective parties can successfully mobilise their supporters to leave their houses on voting day to go to the polls.

What are the issues that will get them there?

Like always, race is likely to play a big role. Here, the EFF has the DA beat. The red berets have been driving the race rhetoric and opinion polls seem to suggest that it has even as much as doubled its vote share from 6% to 11% in large urban areas such as Gauteng, particularly among working- and middle-class men.

The DA in turn has been subject to critique from within and outside for being a "white party". If the DA doesn't manage to transcend the race debate, it could be in serious trouble.

Read more on:    da  |  anc  |  mmusi mai­mane  |  elections 2019
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