In late 2017, at the height of the leadership contestation in the ANC when Jacob Zuma (and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma) supporters squared off against the Cyril Ramaphosa faction, women were holding their own hard line – a significant retraction of support for a ruling party (and its leader) with a dismal record for respecting women.
The first wave results of an ambitious study of voter preferences, conducted by the Centre for Social Development in Africa (CSDA) and released in October 2018, had revealed that women were withdrawing their support for the incumbent party in droves. When the wave 1 findings were run through robust statistical analysis models, it emerged that men were 33 times more likely than women to vote for the ANC in the next election.
This was one of the most significant demographic-related findings of the report, and one we considered at length. At the time, in an op-ed piece for the Mail & Guardian, we wrote, "For now we can only surmise what is driving the gender preferences emerging from the findings" and that "women voters appear to be more discerning in how they planned to exercise their votes".
In the second wave of the study, however, women surprised us once again. When we garnered input on voting preferences for wave 2, from a similar sample of potential voters (3431 people), we found that no gender gap in voter preferences. In other words, gender is not a predictor of who respondents were likely to vote for. This is a significant shift from our previous findings.
The people sourced for this study generally reflect the demographics of the country itself, with 70% urban and 30% rural, 52% female and 49% male. Then, 77% of respondents were black, 10% coloured, 11% white and 3% Indian/Asian. Ultimately, we are confident that this sample can be extrapolated to reflect around 38 million potential voters. All other factors being equal, in wave 2, gender just didn't show the predictive split previously observed. So how do we account for this change?
One important factor is who leads the ruling party. By the time we were collecting data for the second wave, Cyril Ramaphosa was president of the country and leader of the ANC. We constructed two analysis models to control for this change, and ultimately found that when inserted as a factor on its own and independent of trust in institutions, trust in the Ramaphosa presidency emerges as the single most important predictor of voter preference for the governing party. With Ramaphosa at the helm, both party loyalty and trust in the government increased, despite the persistence of the belief that corruption had increased in the last year.
Can a single personality make all the difference? The fact that women were demonstrably less likely to support the ANC under Zuma must be viewed in context. As a leader he was described as "often tone deaf to gender sensitivities" (Verashni Pillay, 2012), and his term as president (since 2009) was described by Colleen Lowe Morna, CEO of Gender Links, as one in which "gender discourse in South Africa has taken its worst knock in the twenty years of democracy".
Women's representation in government also took a step back under the previous leadership, both in cabinet and provincial premier appointments. In the 2016 elections, only two women were nominated as mayors for the eight metros. There are numerous examples of Zuma's controversial views on women, reflected in statements such as that the nations 'daughters' become a societal problem when they do not marry – for which the Commission for Gender Equality reprimanded him; his outrageously sexist remarks to female journalists that he would like to compliment women more, but can't since it is perceived as harassment; and his remark that women were missing out on "good men and marriage".
The once-progressive ANC Women's League did little to show their disdain for Zuma's utterances.
The ANCWL's outright support for Zuma was reflected numerous times during his Presidency, and was clearly (as indicated in our 2017 survey), not shared by many women in South Africa and in particular, women supporters of the ANC. The most telling instance of this is arguably the incredibly poignant protest at the local government election results ceremony in 2016, where four black-clad young women stood, holding placards, in front of the podium as President Zuma made his speech. The posters read: "I am 1 in 3" (referring to the fact that one in three women are sexually abused in their lifetime); "#"; "10 years later"; "Remember Khwezi" (referring to the woman Zuma was accused of raping 10 years ago); "Khanga" (the cotton decorated fabric draped around women and also worn by Khwezi).
When Zuma concluded his speech, the women were violently removed. Later, ANCWL president Bathabile Dlamini defended the handling of the situation, and demanded that the IEC apologise to the president.
Fast forward a few years, and under a new president of the ANC and the country, women seemed to have returned to supporting the ANC, which is – we believe – without doubt the most gender-progressive party in the country, at least on paper.
The turnaround in support for the ANC reveals to us some of the agency and considerations of South Africa's women voters, whose preferences stem from more than just traditional party loyalty, and whose return to the 'fold' may reflect their hope for a different, more equal, more gender-sensitive ANC leadership.
- Prof Leila Patel is SA Research Chair in Welfare and Social Development in the Centre for Social Development in Africa (CSDA) at the University of Johannesburg. Yolanda Sadie is professor of Politics in the Department of Political Science at the University of Johannesburg. Megan Bryer is researcher in the CSDA at the University of Johannesburg.