How to use that huge majority

Alex | Oct 01, 2009
Many voters would like to see all parties and races participate in government and welcome the success of the opposition.

THE FIRST TASK of the post-election survey was to ascertain who had actually voted on June 2. Three and a half million fewer votes were cast in this year’s election than in 1994 — a dramatic figure given that the population of voting age has risen by approximately two million in the intervening five years.

Turnout varied enormously among different groups. African voters had a 20 per cent turnout margin over either Asian or Coloured voters and 15 per cent over whites. In all groups, older age groups voted more than the young, and the employed more than the unemployed and economically inactive. Among whites far more women voted than men, because whites have an older population than other groups and women live longer than men. There is no doubt that the increased African National Congress majority derives very largely from these differential turnout figures. The ANC campaign to get African voters to register and then vote — with help from mobile registration units which operated only in African areas — was more effective than the efforts of the political parties in white, Coloured and Asian areas, where all agreed that they met significant voter apathy.

There is also strong circumstantial evidence to suggest that the barrier of the bar-coded ID caused many voters among the minorities to decide that they would neither register nor vote and that this decision was made relatively early on. Later, once the campaign had achieved a degree of popular mobilisation, many decided they would like to vote after all, but then found they were too late because they had failed to register or to get a bar-coded ID. Estimates of how many people were barred from voting by the bar-coded ID requirement range up to 4 million and many of these voters were unnecessarily deprived of the franchise. On the day, many polling stations either had no working machines to read bar-coded IDs or the machines broke down. In both cases, officials had to tick off names from the register by hand: the method that would have been used for the old IDs. That this happened even in many of the more developed and sophisticated areas suggests that the whole bar-coded ID exercise was in practice redundant.

When we asked respondents how they had voted, significant numbers, particularly among the three racial minorities, refused to tell us. Despite this reticence the results are clear-cut. As well as taking the overwhelming share of the African vote, the ANC shot ahead of the New National Party to become the leading party among Coloured voters. However its popularity with Asians fell: the ANC dropped almost 10 per cent from its 1994 showing among Asians. The Democratic Party emerged for the first time as the biggest party among whites and Asians. The DP also overtook the NNP among black voters everywhere — a small but important trend. Thus contrary to the claim frequently made that the party’s Fight Back campaign had cut it off from African voters, the DP actually made useful gains among Africans as well as Asians and Coloureds.

But DP, and UDM, support is fragile. Asked to name their second-choice parties, the results showed that three-quarters of both ANC and Inkatha Freedom Party voters were so loyal to their parties that they named them as second choices as well as first. Even within the NNP’s reduced electorate the hardcore of such loyalists was 48 per cent, while among the DP’s newly swollen electorate it was only 29 per cent and among United Democratic Movement voters 10 per cent. Where a different party was named many of the second choices given reflect the party that respondents had voted for last time. One can see that the DP picked up many votes from the NNP and parties further to the right, as well as a small fringe from the ANC. Thus 19 per cent of DP voters named the NNP as their second choice, 6 per cent the ANC and 4 per cent the Freedom Front.

In our study of the 1994 election (Launching Democracy in South Africa, Yale University Press) Lawrence Schlemmer and I found that ANC voters, particularly Africans, were distinguished by their optimism about the future. Even though reporting that the quality of their lives had deteriorated in the previous five years an overwhelming majority of ANC voters thought that this was about to change. Posing this question again at mid-term in October 1996, we found a small plurality of Africans thought that their lives had improved since the 1994 election and 58 per cent believed that their lives would get better in the five years to come. Only 9 per cent thought that things would get worse. In our 1999 survey this optimism seems to have been justified for the 59 per cent of African voters who said that their lives had improved since 1994, though 13 per cent said they had become worse. And the optimism about the future remained overwhelming: when asked about prospects for the next five years 84 per cent of African voters said they expected life to improve against only 5 per cent who thought they would be worse off.

Breaking down these answers by party choice, we found that 91 per cent of African ANC voters thought that their lives would improve over the next five years against only 1 per cent who believed they would deteriorate. These results are extremely striking when one takes into account both the sharp rise in unemployment and falling real incomes of the previous five years and the crime wave. The persistence of this deep well of optimism among ANC voters, particularly Africans, is perhaps the most fundamental feature of the current political situation. Despite any material disappointments that they may have experienced since 1994, they have not relinquished the vision of a better future around the corner.



Table 1
In 1999 the ANC is again promising “A better life for all”. If the ANC fails to fulfil its promises over the next five years I will

ANC voters
ANC voters
Still vote ANC  76.8  63.0
Put pressure on ANC
through the community
 9.5  11.0
Abstain from voting  5.2  14.5
Vote for another party  8.6  11.5


When we asked ANC voters how they would respond if the government failed to fulfil its promises over the next five years, less than 9 per cent said that they would vote for another party (Table 1). Among Coloured ANC voters 26 per cent said they would either abstain or vote for another party. The overall loss to the ANC would be in the region of only one seventh of its vote. While this is evidence of a truly awesome loyalty factor, such losses (including more than one in four of its Coloured voters) would severely damage the party’s standing and morale: clearly the ANC has to deliver this time or face a serious backlash.


Table 2
What are your plans concerning residence?

ANC voters
Coloured  Asian White
         Afr  Eng
92.2 88.9  71.9  64.9  68.3
1.4 2.2 3.9 5.3 8.3
 0.7 1.0 4.1 2.4 7.9
Would leave
if I could
5.0 7.7 19.0 26.9 15.0


During the run-up to this year’s election there were indications that many among the racial minorities were disaffected with politics, with some talking seriously about emigration. To measure this mood among voters we asked respondents about their future intentions (Table 2). About two-thirds of white voters replied that they were definitely committed to staying in the country, but over a quarter of white Afrikaners and substantial numbers of African, Coloured and Asian voters said that they would leave if they could. Although in practice most of these people will stay because they have no alternative, it is significant that 27 per cent of white Afrikaners would prefer to be somewhere else. Throughout their lives Afrikaners were taught to refuse to countenance majority rule so it is not surprising that some have continued in a state of denial. This simple refusal of a unitary system with universal suffrage was symbolised both by the Conservative Party’s refusal to put up candidates in 1994, the AWB’s horse-borne heroics, which equally eschewed the ballot box, and latterly the Freedom Front’s aspirations for a Boerestaat. In 1999 the FF vote collapsed when a further wave of Afrikaans voters bolted to the DP as the best alternative available within the system. However, the 27 per cent who continue to dream of emigration, as indeed the further 7 per cent who will either definitely emigrate or are seriously considering doing so, continue to hanker for an alternative outside the system.

Table 3
How would you like the ANC to use its very large majority?

  African African
Coloured  Asian  White
           Afr  Eng
Govern on its own 47 56.6 23.2 5.4 7.3 9.8
Make a deal
with the IFP
18.2 11.9 4.5 6.9 3.5 1.9
Draw in other
31.8 29.2 54.9 81.8 82.6 83.2
Don’t know 3 2.3 17.4 5.9 6.6 5.1


In party terms, the election had four main features: the ANC’s advance to within a whisker of a two-thirds majority, the collapse of the NNP, the rise of the DP and the emergence of the UDM. We asked respondents how they would like the ANC to use its large majority (Table 3). Even among African ANC voters, only just over half wanted it to govern on its own. Among black voters as a whole, nearly a third not only wanted it to draw in Chief Buthelezi and give him an important position, but to draw in other parties and groups as well. Among Coloured, Asian and white voters the demand for such power-sharing was overwhelming.

This suggests that the electorate not merely hankers after a government of national unity but, more particularly, that most voters would like to see representatives of all races, groups and parties participate in the new society. The spirit of the new South Africa remains an inclusive one. This large group of black and even of ANC voters who were unhappy to see the party governing on its own corresponds to the equally sizeable numbers who did not want to see the ANC gain a two-thirds majority even though this was its professed goal.While the spirit of the new South Africa is one in which voters would like to see all parties and all races in government and in which the ambition of every party is to be seen standing for all races, electoral reality is at odds with this vision. As in 1994, this year’s election remained a racially polarised ethnic census.

In order to test this ethnic dimension we asked voters which parties they thought were really for black people, which for white and which for all races. The results showed that even among African voters more than 40 per cent see the ANC as a party for Africans. All the other groups, even the Coloureds who gave the ANC the largest share of their vote this time, sustained this verdict. The UDM stood out as the only party that a majority believed was for all races. The NNP, which emerged from the 1994 election as the most multiracial of the parties by voter support, has nevertheless failed to shake the image of being essentially a party for whites. Undoubtedly, it is the apartheid albatross around the NNP’s neck that has in the end proved fatal.



Table 4
The DP gained a lot of votes in the election and is much stronger
than before. What is your attitude?

  African Coloured  Asian White
         Afr  Eng
I voted DP and am
pleased by its success
1.4 14.2 27.7 31 52.3
I didn’t vote DP but am pleased to see it doing well 20.9 35.9 33.3 28.4 18.3
I didn’t vote DP but might consider doing so in future 12.0 10.6 21.3 27 22.2
I didn’t vote DP and will definitely never do so 65.7 39.3 17.7 13.7 7.2


We then tested attitudes towards the DP’s electoral success (Table 4). Many commentators insisted both during and after the election that, because of its “Fight Back” campaign, the DP had painted itself into a corner from which further advance would be difficult. However, it was immediately clear from the responses we got that the DP stands to make further large gains over the next five years. Well over a third of all African voters had essentially positive attitudes towards the DP, as did 60 per cent of Coloureds, 82 per cent of Asians and 86 per cent of white Afrikaners.

In the past many such voters have told pollsters that they did not vote DP because it was so small and they did not wish to waste their vote. Now that an enlarged DP has become the official Opposition, this argument falls away. Many of the respondents who said they had not voted DP this time but were pleased to see it doing well or might consider voting for it in the future may begin drifting towards the party during the present parliament. Indeed, the Markinor poll conducted in July that showed the DP advancing from 9.56 per cent of the June vote to 11 per cent and the NNP falling from 6.87 per cent to 4 per cent, suggests that this is already happening — as do the results of a number of municipal by-elections since June. A great deal will depend on how successfully the DP tackles the twin challenges of binding together its now very diverse electorate and refocusing its political strategy towards conquering these new grounds.

Table 5
The UDM won a useful number of votes and elected
14 MPs. What is your attitude

   African Coloured  Asian  White
         Afr  Eng
I voted UDM and am
pleased by its success
3.8 1.6 - 1.7 3.7
I didn’t vote UDM but am pleased to see it doing well 20.2 40.1 37.2 26.8 25.8
I didn’t vote UDM but might consider doing so in future 16.2 11.8 22.2 19.4 17.7
I didn’t vote UDM and will definitely never do so 59.8 46.6 40.6 52.2 52.8


When we asked the same question about the UDM, it was clear that it too enjoys considerable potential: attitudes were essentially positive towards it among a wide swathe of the electorate (Table 5). However, the party is handicapped both by lack of resources and by squabbles within its own ranks — the virtual demise of the PAC in the 1999 election showed the cost of such factionalism.



Table 6
When did you make up your mind which party to vote for?

In the final week 5 16 9
In the last two months 5 25 11
In the year before 14 27 13
More than a year before 77 32 67


How far were the campaigns themselves decisive (Table 6)? This factor was most important for the DP: no less than 41 per cent of its eventual voters plumped for the party only in the campaign period. Among Afrikaans-speaking whites this figure rose to 46 per cent. Whatever the criticisms made of it, the campaign was enormously successful and must take much of the credit for the final vanquishing of Afrikaner nationalism. One must not overlook the fact that 10 per cent of ANC voters also only made up their minds in the last two months of the campaign, and this represents an even larger number of voters than those who decided for the DP during the same period. In general, however, ANC supporters were much more likely than any others to have made up their minds more than a year before the election and were less likely than others to have considered voting for another party. Of those who did, almost a third said they had considered the UDM. Among voters just over half considered voting for the DP at some stage.
We then asked voters what were the key issues and messages of the campaign. The idea of change, including such notions as a “better life for all”, transformation and empowerment not surprisingly occupied the top spot: these were the ANC’s major themes and its electorate was likely to remember them. It was also no surprise to see jobs and crime coming in as number two and three respectively since all pre-election polls had confirmed that these issues were the principal preoccupations of all sections of the electorate. The real surprise was to see the “Fight Back” slogan coming in at fourth place, ahead of issues such as housing and education; 40 per cent of DP voters mentioned this slogan.

Critics of the “Fight Back” campaign suggested that it was responsible for further polarising the racial climate, so we tested how far voters believed that the spirit of racial reconciliation that characterised the great turning point of 1994 had weakened or even vanished. The results were most encouraging. Nearly three-quarters of African voters and nearly 70 per cent of Asians said that the spirit of reconciliation was at least as strong as before. Among whites substantial numbers also believed this was so, while smaller numbers believed that the spirit was either very much weaker or had vanished entirely. Fully 50 per cent of DP voters — more than was true of either Afrikaans or English-speaking whites — believed that the spirit of reconciliation was either just as strong as before or even stronger. Clearly all racial groups are keen to believe that this spirit has survived.

We then tested attitudes towards the ANC as a hegemonic party and found that well over a third of African voters and over a quarter of ANC voters were less than happy about the ANC’s ability to place its cadres in all key positions in the state. This corroborated our findings about how people wished the ANC to use its large majority (Table 3). Very large proportions of the three racial minorities and a substantial number of Africans were unhappy about the ANC’s dominant position.


Table 7
How well will President Thabo Mbeki deal with South Africa's problems?
    African Coloured  Asian  White
      Afr  Eng
Very well  63 38  23   6 16
Quite well 28 30 53 49 53
 Badly  7 13 15 37 24
Don't know  2 19  9   8 7


Opinions of the new president, however, were mainly positive (Table 7). Large majorities of all racial groups, and no less than 70 per cent of DP voters, believed that he will deal very well or quite well with the problems ahead. Thus even among the official Opposition party there was a willingness to give the president the benefit of the doubt. This is a clear sign that attitudes towards the presidency, which floated free of purely party considerations during the Mandela period, remain detached, with the president able to garner a level of support far above that of his own party. Here, too, despite pessimism expressed from some quarters about the polarising effects of the election, there was an essential goodwill and open-mindedness towards the incoming administration.