Distilling meaning from an election outcome is a tricky business. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds of the details and forget the big picture; or conversely to miss some of the important details that are required to fully understand the result. In this article, I explain my interpretation of the election of May 8. I will do so in two sections to ensure coverage of the details and the bottom-line implications.
Part 1: What the numbers say
By simply looking at the national ballot election result, there is an obvious take-away: Something in the electoral calculus drove down ANC and DA support; and in turn drove up EFF and FF+ support. By getting into the details, we can understand this properly. I believe there are four key factors to understand how this happened.
This was an exceptionally low-turnout election; an almost shockingly low-turnout election compared to previous national elections. South Africa has never had a national election with less than 70% overall turnout. In 2014, turnout was 72.5%. The overall turnout for the 2019 national election (including all overseas voters who filled in VEC10 forms), is 65.1%. This is much lower than anticipated and influenced the election outcome significantly.
If we look at the demographic breakdowns, we can see that the DA and FF+ benefitted tremendously from the turnout pattern (with the brackets here showing the movement from 2014).
National suburban* turnout: 74.1% (-3)
National black turnout: 62.7% (-7)
That’s a +11.4% differential turnout in suburban areas, which is enormous for a national election. When this happens it means the make-up of the electorate is disproportionately suburban and that black voters are “underrepresented” in the electorate. This obviously helps the parties that perform well in the suburbs (primarily the DA).
On a more technical note, it would seem that pollsters had assumed something like a +7% turnout differential in favour of suburbs in their polling. I had done the same in my modelling since “+7f%” was the outcome in the 2014 national election. This bigger-than-expected turnout gap helped especially to drive the DA’s numbers up and it should be noted that this beneficial turnout pattern actually masks the extent of the DA’s losses that occurred at a core demographic level.
A final note on turnout is that, as the brackets indicate, turnout was down everywhere; but that it was disproportionately down in the black electorate, which is what drove up the eventual turnout differential to this very high level.
The demographics of the election are fascinating. At the highest level, it tells a simple story: The ANC took significant losses in the black electorate, the DA stagnated (or grew only marginally) in the black electorate and the EFF picked up a lot of support in the black electorate. The DA, on the other hand, lost significant support in suburban areas, with most of it going to the FF+, but a small portion also went to the ANC.
Here are the numbers (with the brackets again showing the movement from 2014):
2019 suburban voters nationally:
DA 70.4% (-11.5)
ANC 11.5% (+1.9)
FF+ 8% (+4.7)
EFF 2.5% (+1.1)
The DA clearly took massive losses in the suburban electorate, with the lion’s share moving to the FF+. There were also minor improvements for the ANC, indicating that there was a small “Thuma Mina” effect, with a slightly higher percentage of white voters voting ANC than usual.
But there’s something very interesting hidden in the suburban numbers. If we split out the suburban numbers in to the inland provinces (LM, MP, NW, GP, FS and NC) and compare it to the suburban voting pattern in the coastal provinces (WC, EC, KZN), an interesting difference emerges.
2019 suburban voters inland provinces (national ballot):
DA 63.9% (-22)
ANC 13.8% (+2.4)
FF+ 13.4% (+9)
EFF 3.9% (+1.5)
2019 suburban voters coastal provinces (national ballot):
DA 75% (-9)
ANC 9.8% (+1.4)
FF+ 4.2% (+1.7)
EFF 1.4% (+0.7)
There are potentially numerous reasons for this significant divergence. At this stage, my working hypothesis is that the suburban electorate in the inland provinces is much more Afrikaans and much more conservative than the coastal suburban electorate, making it more susceptible to the FF+. More research is required to verify this hypothesis.
Turning then to the black electorate, we see a very clear outcome:
2019 national black electorate:
ANC 72.9% (-5.8)
DA 4.7% (+0.4)
EFF 13.3% (+5.5)
This is an extraordinary result and confirms two key points. Firstly, that the ANC vote total in this portion of the electorate got severely deflated by two forces: Lower turnout and lower share of the vote. And secondly, that the ANC bleed-off went almost exclusively to the EFF, with the DA achieving only very marginal growth in the black electorate. More on this topic in the “qualitative implications” section.
This election saw the biggest ballot splitting effect that has ever taken place in a democratic South African election. It was still not enormous, but certainly impactful. The ANC overperformed on the national ballot compared to the provincial ballot in each province.
DA leader Mmusi Maimane speaks to the media at the IEC results centre in Pretoria (Gallo Images).
The extent of overperformance was as follows:
Western Cape +2.6%
North West +1.8%
Free State +1.3%
Northern Cape +1%
Eastern Cape +0.5%
I see that in some publications this is being fully ascribed to the “Cyril Ramaphosa effect”, with the hypothesis being that some opposition voters voted ANC on the national ballot to give the ANC president a “larger mandate”. This is certainly true to some extent. But there is a separate effect that creates the same impact, but that should not be confused for the “Cyril Ramaphosa effect”.
There are also some ANC national voters who decided to vote for the opposition provincially to, I hypothesise, give the opposition a chance to govern at provincial level. The two forces both cause a ballot split in the same direction and need to be disentangled to be fully understood. It is likely that the ballot split in the suburbs can be attributed to the “Cyril Ramaphosa effect”, but that the ballot split in the townships can actually be attributed to the desire to the give the opposition a chance at provincial governance. More study is required to definitively answer this question.
I have not gone into provincial details here since there’s too much to cover if we deep-dive on those as well. But KZN deserves a special mention, because of its size and the quantum of the shifts that took place there.
It should be noted that the ANC is down in all provinces at differing levels; but the extent of the ANC’s drop in KZN is remarkable.
2019 KZN result (provincial ballot):
ANC 54.2% (-11.1)
IFP 16.3% (+6.1)
DA 13.9% (+0.5)
EFF 9.7% (+7.7)
KZN is a complicated place with a lot of electoral divergence, so it is important to split out the voting patterns, especially within the black electorate in KZN, to understand what happened.
2019 Southern KZN + urban KZN black electorate (provincial ballot):
ANC 72% (-13.3)
IFP 9% (-4.5)
DA 3.1% (+0.7)
EFF 12.9% (+10.4)
The EFF made tremendous strides in this part of the country. This is one of the single biggest contributors to the ANC’s national drop in support, given that this pool of voters encompasses almost 3 million registered voters.
IFP supporters rally at the launch of the party’s election manifesto in KwaZulu-Natal (Gallo Images).
2019 Northern KZN black electorate (national ballot):
ANC 38.4% (-9)
IFP 45.5% (+15.5)
DA 2.9% (+0.8)
EFF 6% (+4.7)
This is where the IFP recovered most of its support, drawing back former NFP voters and taking some ANC vote back here as well.
Part 2: What does it all mean?
This was a highly regionalised election. It is fascinating to observe that the whole country was responding to the same events and forces; but their reactions were wildly different. We have detailed how the suburbs responded differently in different parts of the country. I’ve detailed what happened in KZN. The converse of KZN is true in Limpopo and the Eastern Cape, where the ANC limited its losses to only very marginal levels. The other provinces are all distributed at different places on the spectrum of ANC losses, between the high level in KZN and low level in Limpopo and the Eastern Cape.
These regional effects will be critical in thinking about our elections going forward. Anyone who does not do this properly will most likely get it wrong. National trends are no longer uniform in South Africa.
The disengaged hold the keys to the future
We have detailed how low turnout was in this election. Roughly 9.3 million registered voters did not vote in this election. There’s another 9 million South Africans that are of voting age who are not registered to vote. That’s a full 18 million people who chose not to participate in the electoral process.
They potentially hold the keys to the future. If a party can understand who these people are, why they’re disengaged and get them engaged the electoral impact could be explosive. The alternative is also important: If the disengaged portion of the population continues growing and remains disengaged, it could have significantly negative consequences for governance and democracy in South Africa.
The EFF is a potentially nationally-viable party now
The EFF has now contested three elections. For the first two elections (2014 and 2016), it was essentially locked out of the Nguni electorate (read: they got very low levels of support KZN, EC and WC). It is still lagging in these provinces, but it has made strides and has demonstrated that it is able to reach into these demographic groups by securing footholds now in all provinces. And in its core (NW, LM, GP), it has continued its growth. The EFF is now for example up to 20% of the black vote in North West province.
The demographic potential of the EFF is therefore much higher now than it has been in the past, given that KZN, EC and WC are potentially available to it now. The polling suggests that it continues to struggle with women and older voters; and that a large number of EFF supporters remain unregistered. If it can overcome these demographic hurdles, the EFF will continue to grow the potential pool of voters that is available to it.
The DA project is at risk
DA support dropped for the first time in a national election in post-’94 South Africa. A lot will be written and said about the DA’s drop with suburban voters. This is naturally going to be a topic of discussion and debate, because it had an important impact on this result.
But, in my view, this drop in the suburban electorate has been inevitable for some time; and although the quantum of the drop is beyond what was expected, we should not be too surprised by this. After all, the DA has been on a long journey to reposition itself to be electorally-viable for a majority of South Africans; which by definition will bring it into conflict with the perspective of more conservative elements of the white electorate.
Peter Marais and party leader Dr Pieter Groenewald at the announcement of Marais as the Freedom Front Plus’ premier candidate in the Western Cape. (Gallo Images)
But what I believe can truly be described as a dramatic failure and a strategic problem, is the DA’s inability to grow further in the black electorate. The DA’s failure with black voters in this election is the real warning sign for the party; and is the deeper cause for concern.
It suggests that the party has failed, at least in the last five years, to further reposition itself to be electorally-viable for the majority of South Africans. And fair questions will now begin to emerge as to whether the DA in its current form remains the optimal vehicle for establishing a modern, market-driven, multi-racial alternative to the ANC that can implement an effective dual economic transformation and economic growth plan.
The DA’s response to the failures of this election will be critical. In my view, it will need to communicate an acknowledgement of failure and a clear, coherent strategy for the future direction of the party in line with its broader project to create a long-term viable alternative to the ANC. The DA needs much, much more strategy and vision; and less tactics.
The ANC bought time (but not that much)
The ANC’s slow decline with the black electorate has continued and is beginning to take on an element of inevitability. There is an important point that has not been covered in this article though: Despite dropping significantly in the black electorate from 2014, the ANC did recover marginally from its 2016 level of support in the black electorate. Local government elections and national government elections are not perfectly comparable, but the bleeding that the ANC saw in 2016 has been stalled. For now. But given the incredibly high “wrong track” numbers that pollsters are picking up in their analyses, the ANC has, in my opinion, a short window within which to achieve a reversal of economic and governance outcomes.
* I have used suburban areas for this analysis as a proxy for white and higher-income voters. These areas are overwhelmingly white, but not 100% white and as such the suburban voting pattern is indicative of the white voting pattern; but not a fully accurate reflection. For coloured, white and Indian voters further work will be done to estimate the relevant voting patterns.
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