South Africans are set to go to the polls on 27 October 2021 for the country's sixth municipal elections since the advent of democracy in 1994. The right of all adult South Africans to vote was hard won after a long struggle against colonialism and apartheid.
Voting is a cornerstone of democracy: a chance for people to elect their preferred representatives. But, what informs people's voting decisions? Why do they choose to vote for one party and not another? In short, can we predict who they are likely to vote for in an upcoming national and a local election?
Over the past four years we tracked the factors that influence South African voters' party choices and more importantly, why they made these choices. We interviewed a nationally representative sample of about 3 400 respondents from October to December, between 2017 and 2020. In total, four waves of data were collected in face-to-face interviews.
We are, therefore, able to compare the findings over the four waves to identify the factors that influenced their choices and also how these changed over this period.
Our latest report contains the findings from the fourth wave of data collected on voter preferences - amid the pandemic and in the run-up to the 2021 municipal elections.
Four theories are tested statistically in our research. These are rational choice, clientelistic, sociological and party identification. All are widely used to understand voting behaviour across countries. The research questions and analysis model that we devised include all four theories. These provide the possible explanations for people's voting choices.
In this article, we share findings from our longitudinal study to gain a better understanding of why people vote the way they do. The findings serve as a gauge of citizens' approval or disapproval of policies and programmes, and can serve to hold elected officials accountable for their decisions and actions.
What informs voter choices?
We asked six questions about their party choice relating to governance and trust in political leadership, corruption, socio-economic well-being, democratic rights, social grants and socio-demographic factors such as age, gender, education and income and employment.
We used a logistic regression model to assess how the four factors influenced their choices. In December 2020, 52% of respondents selected the ANC, 10% selected the opposition Democratic Alliance and Economic Freedom Fighters, respectively. A quarter were either undecided, would not vote or refused to disclose their party choice. Only 6% said they would vote differently in a local government election compared to a national election.
We found the following:
Rational choice model: This suggests that voters make their choices based on rational considerations motivated by self-interest. Closely related factors that are pertinent that we assessed included perceptions of governance - such as trust in institutions, government performance and progress in addressing corruption.
We found that concern about socioeconomic well-being was the main reason respondents gave for their choice of a political party across all four waves. It was also a statistically significant predictor of voter choice in 2017.
But, this factor became less important after the leadership changes in the governing African National Congress (ANC), that saw Cyril Ramaphosa replace Jacob Zuma as ANC president in December 2017.
It is likely that socio-economic well-being became less important and that trust in Ramaphosa's presidency resulted in increased support for the ANC.
Clientelism model: This contends that politicians use their power to provide economic privileges or material support in exchange for political support.
Some opponents of South Africa's extensive social grant system have suggested that social grants guarantee support for the ANC.
Respondents expressed fear of losing a social grant if they supported an opposition party across all four waves. Although receiving a grant is not a predictor of party preference, fear of loss of a grant certainly is. This suggests that potential voters do make rational decisions and choices that affect their material well-being, and expressed approval of the grants system.
The Sociological model also informed our analysis. This essentially argues that social determinants like "race", class, gender and education are what drive voting decisions.
We found that "race" continued to be consistently a predictor of voter preference over all the waves. Regarding gender, women shifted their support away from the ANC towards the opposition in 2017 during the Zuma presidency (May 2009 - February 2018).
In wave 4, a greater proportion of women grant beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries supported the ANC compared to male grant beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries. Age also remained a consistent predictor of voter choice: younger people were less likely than older people to support the ANC than opposition parties. But, support for the ANC was spread across all age groups.
Party identification model: This has been used to explain voting preferences in South Africa. It examines the extent to which party choice is guided by support for the party that led the struggle for freedom and democracy - that is, the ANC and, specifically, its leadership. We did not find evidence for this in wave 1 during Zuma's presidency. But, trust in the presidency of Ramaphosa and party loyalty emerged as significant predictors across the subsequent three waves.
While trust in institutions declined over this same period, trust in the president did not. In fact, it increased from 54% in wave 3 to 60% in Wave 4. This may be attributed to the view that President Ramaphosa and the government did a good job in managing the coronavirus pandemic.
This does confirm the importance of political leadership as a predictor of voting behaviour in the current South African scenario. Contextual factors such as leadership changes in the governing party and the management of the pandemic also appear to hold sway.
We found that a range of intersecting factors explain voting preferences over the past four years. While existing theories of voting behaviour are helpful in understanding voter choices, specific factors that influence party choice emerged from our study.
These include the importance of democratic rights and perceptions of good governance - in particular the prevalence of corruption and the performance of the president on Covid-19 - and the fear of loss of social grants if the party in power changes.
Furthermore, it is evident that party loyalty is not fixed. It can rise and wane as voters have become disillusioned with the governing party. Although there is a slight shift in voters agreeing (41%) that corruption is being dealt with decisively in wave 4, the majority thought that corruption during the pandemic made them more negative towards the ANC. We conclude that voter preferences are driven by rational considerations in their choice of a party in elections.
Megan Bryer and Jaclyn de Klerk co-authored the research on which this article is based.
Authors: Leila Patel - Professor of Social Development Studies, University of Johannesburg | Yolanda Sadie - Emeritus professor in Politics, University of Johannesburg