South African voters are moving beyond party loyalty: they want delivery

Voters line up in South Africa's last election. Their concerns are shifting. EFE-EPA/Kim Ludbrook
Voters line up in South Africa's last election. Their concerns are shifting. EFE-EPA/Kim Ludbrook

The attention of South Africans has recently been firmly fixed on issues of good governance – or more specifically on its failures. This is due partly to several exposés of scandals involving former President Jacob Zuma and the Gupta family. The allegations are that members of the family and a network of individuals close to Zuma were involved in corruption and efforts to weaken key state institutions.

But does the public outcry reflect actual changes in the hearts, minds, and loyalty of the nation’s voters? And what does this mean for the incumbent government, led by the African National Congress (ANC), when the people return to the polls in 2019?

New research suggests that major shifts are beginning to happen in the country. For example, in past elections, loyalty to the ANC – the party that led the struggle for freedom and democracy – mattered more than government performance and trust in government institutions. This is no longer the case. The research shows that the performance of institutions such as parliament, the Courts, the South African Police Services, the South African Social Security Agency, the Department of Social Development and the media are now as important a predictor of voters’ preferences.

In fact, issues of good governance – reflected in trust in institutions, the implementation of the socio-economic rights enshrined in the Constitution and perceptions of corruption – matter significantly.

This is clear from the two major findings of the study. The first is that the number of people supporting the ANC is down significantly. The survey found that 53% of those interviewed said that they would vote for the ANC in 2019. The percentage may be slightly higher as 11% of respondents said they wouldn’t vote and the remainder refused to answer the question. This is significantly lower than the 70% the ANC got in 2004 and marginally lower than the 54% in the 2016 local government elections.

Secondly, perceptions of good governance are becoming more important for the average voter, and that party loyalty – while still significant – is on the decline.

These first findings are part of a three-part national study into the drivers of voting preference and influence.

What matters

Perceptions of who and how decisions are made, how resources are managed and implemented, and the extent to which public institutions meet the needs of the population (rather than a select group of people) appears to be holding sway among potential voters. This is pertinent given the prevalence of service delivery protests, increasing concerns about safety and the daily exposure by various commissions of enquiry of the magnitude of corruption.

The study clearly shows that perceptions of good governance, corruption as well as social and economic well-being are the key factors likely to influence how people vote in the 2019 national general elections.

We also found that:

  • 75% of the respondents believed that corruption had increased in the country.
  • Voting for the party of “liberation” was still the most important reason for 35% of all respondents. But this was not a key driver of voting behaviour in our statistical model. This is a clear shift from the past two decades.
  • Many respondents expressed fairly high levels of trust in institutions (such as the courts, media, South African Social Security Agency, and the Department of Social Development). But, former President Jacob Zuma fared poorly: only 26% of potential voters expressed trust in him.
  • Voters who expressed strong trust in institutions were nearly four times likelier to vote ANC than those who had strong distrust in institutions.
  • Voters who believed that corruption had increased since 2014 were half as likely to vote for the ANC than those who thought that corruption had decreased.


The research revealed that while potential voters in the poor and middle-income brackets are not oblivious to how public institutions conduct their affairs, just over half of the respondents were likely or extremely likely to trust the South African Social Security Agency and the Department of Social Development. These two departments are directly engaged in poverty reduction through the payment of social grants to almost 17 million beneficiaries and the delivery of welfare services to vulnerable individuals and families.

Figure 1: How likely are you to trust in the following institutions?

However, the survey found lower levels of trust in the South African Police Service (44%). This comes as no surprise in view of high rates of crime and violence in the country.

Trust in Parliament was 45%, indicating less favourable public opinion about the failure of parliament to hold political office bearers to account. Similarly, corruption is highly likely to be the reason for the low levels of trust expressed in former President Zuma (26%).

Looking ahead

These findings, when read along with concerns about corruption and service delivery failures, suggest that good governance matters significantly to voters. These perceptions and the extent to which public institutions meet the needs of the population appear to be holding sway among potential voters.

This is pertinent given the persistence of service delivery protests in communities all over the country and the exposure to corruption on a daily basis.

Whether the recent changes in ANC leadership, which saw Cyril Ramaphosa become party president and leader of the country, will once again shift voter perceptions is a question that we hope to answer when the results of the 2018 study are released.

This first set of data was collected through a nationally representative survey, at the height of the contestation for leadership in the governing party in 2017. It’s the first set of findings released in a three-year study. The next findings – to be released in the first quarter of 2019 – will help to show patterns over time, particularly where voters hold contradictory views.

The Conversation

Leila Patel receives funding from the National Research Foundation for her Research Chair in Welfare and Social Development, from the University of Johannesburg’s Research Committee and the Faculty of Humanities Research Committee at UJ

This story first appeared on The Conversation

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