Si­lent revo­lu­tion

Fewer vot­ers pre­dis­posed to any party as his­tor­i­cal loy­al­ties wane

Finweek English Edition - - Openers - TROYE LUND troyel@fin­week.co.za

THERE’S MUCH MORE TO the “where’s op­po­si­tion pol­i­tics in South Africa headed” chat­ter cur­rently be­ing driven by Mo­siuoa Lekota’s de­ci­sion to lead a splin­ter party out of the African Na­tional Congress. Apart from the irony that, for all their work to the con­trary, op­po­si­tion par­ties have had noth­ing to do with a move they’re billing as SA’s his­tor­i­cal post-apartheid po­lit­i­cal align­ment, the fu­ture of op­po­si­tion pol­i­tics doesn’t hinge on whether Lekota’s pro­posed party will fi­nally usher in an op­po­si­tion that can do some se­ri­ous snap­ping at the heels of power.

Doc­toral re­search con­ducted for the Uni­ver­sity of Cape Town’s Cen­tre for So­cial Sci­ence Re­search uses in­tense data-based stud­ies to make one thing clear: Vot­ers are looking for some­thing new.

But de­spite a grow­ing num­ber of el­i­gi­ble vot­ers (the pool in­creased by 5m in the first 10 years of democ­racy), fewer and fewer peo­ple are reg­is­ter­ing to vote and fewer are ac­tu­ally vot­ing. Voter turnout in 1994 was 86% against 57% in the last na­tional elec­tion in 2004.

Given the po­lit­i­cal machi­na­tions of the past few years, au­thor of the re­search – Co­lette Schultz-Herzen­berg – an­tic­i­pates it’s cur­rently at its low­est since 1994. While op­po­si­tion par­ties have been the big­gest losers in all this, when viewed in the con­text of dwin­dling voter turnout the ANC’s in­creas­ing share of the vote (69% in 2004) means only one thing: it’s be­ing elected to power by a de­creas­ing num­ber of vot­ers, says SchulzHerzen­berg in her re­port A Si­lent Revo­lu­tion: South African Vot­ers in the First Years of Democ­racy 1994-2006.

Con­trary to the muchtouted po­lit­i­cal pre­sump­tion that loy­alty – es­pe­cially loy­alty to the ANC – is a given in SA’s racialised po­lit­i­cal land­scape, the de­gree of loy­alty to po­lit­i­cal par­ties, es­pe­cially the rul­ing party, fluc­tu­ates be­tween elec­tions and has de­clined among black African vot­ers, fig­ures in ShultzHerzen­berg’s re­search show.

She says: “There’s a si­lent revo­lu­tion un­der way among SA’s vot­ers. Its char­ac­ter­is­tics may be found in the in­creas­ing num­ber of ‘float­ing vot­ers’ who aren’t overtly loyal to one par­tic­u­lar po­lit­i­cal party, not guided by long-stand­ing par­ti­san ties. Where party iden­ti­fi­ca­tion was crys­tallised and re­in­forced in 1994 by his­tor­i­cal fac­tors there are now fewer vot­ers pre­dis­posed to­wards any party.”

Fur­ther­more, as par­ti­san­ship de­clines, the ma­jor­ity of vot­ers aren’t trans­fer­ring al­le­giance to an­other party. In­stead, they’re be­com­ing non-par­ti­san in at­ti­tude. That will make them harder to mo­bilise.

Party iden­ti­fi­ca­tion (PID) is a widely used in­di­ca­tor of par­ti­san loy­alty and mea­sures the ex­tent to which vot­ers “iden­tify with” or “feel close to” po­lit­i­cal par­ties, in much the same way that they iden­tify with so­cial groups.

Very high lev­els of par­ti­san­ship af­ter the 1994 “lib­er­a­tion” elec­tion (88%) started de­clin­ing, Schulz-Herzen­berg’s re­search shows. Since 1995 no more than 64% of the pop­u­la­tion has ever stated they feel close to a po­lit­i­cal party.

In most West­ern Euro­pean coun­tries 60% to 70% of vot­ers iden­tify at least some­what with a party. It stands to rea­son that de­creas­ing par­ti­san­ship in SA cor­re­sponds with an in­creas­ing pro­por­tion of “non-par­ti­san” or in­de­pen­dent vot­ers. By end2004 the per­cent­age of par­ti­sans and in­de­pen­dents were al­most equal.

Schulz-Herzen­berg con­cedes the lack of in­ter­est in po­lit­i­cal par­ties of the day doesn’t equate to a lack of in­ter­est in pol­i­tics. In other words, it’s not the vot­ers who are the prob­lem, it’s the po­lit­i­cal par­ties who are lost in a quag­mire of his­tory, ego­cen­tric­ity and au­to­cratic pre­sump­tions about their elec­torate.

His­tor­i­cal ties, es­pe­cially the play on the ANC’s rich lib­er­a­tion his­tory, are busy ex­haust­ing them­selves. Half of the cur­rent vot­ing pop­u­la­tion, ac­cord­ing to the In­de­pen­dent Elec­toral Com­mis­sion, wasn’t even el­i­gi­ble to vote in 1994 – which means they have no real mem­o­ries of that his­tory. Fur­ther­more, the ANC it­self has noted in re­cent doc­u­ments aimed at pre­par­ing the party for next year’s elec­tion that ur­ban, work­ing class vot­ers are grow­ing in­creas­ingly dis­il­lu­sioned with what the free­dom years have de­liv­ered for them.

“That’s good news,” says Schulz-Herzen­berg. It’s a sign of life. The elec­torate isn’t dumbed out, she says. “Those (par­ties) that strug­gle to present gen­uinely in­clu­sive racial and eth­nic im­agery will not at­tract wide­spread sup­port (in fu­ture).” The very rea­son why the “float­ing” vot­ers haven’t shifted sup­port be­tween par­ties is be­cause they’ve moved, sur­veys show, away from the racial pol­i­tics of iden­tity and his­tory the cur­rent par­ties find it dif­fi­cult to move away from.

Spot the dif­fer­ence?

1994

2004

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