JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA— As South Africa’s ruling party settles in for another five years in power, the numbers show that the African National Congress’s traditional support base - low-income voters - has dwindled significantly. For Africa’s leading democracy, this promises interesting elections in 2016, and could signal future changes in the political landscape.
Just days before voters gave him another term in office, South African President Jacob Zuma drew a clear line across his nation’s electorate, asserting that his traditional support base - South Africa’s working class and poor - had no interest in the scandal involving public money used to make improvements to his private homestead, Nkandla.
“The people are not worried about it. As a result, people don’t think the Nkandla issue is a problem to affect ANC voters, not at all. It’s not an issue with the voters," said Zuma. "It’s an issue with the bright people. [For the] Very clever people, it’s a big issue.”
Zuma speaks out
Zuma, who portrays himself as a populist, has often expressed derision for the people he labels "clever" -- a group he variously defines to include intellectuals, urbanites, journalists, his critics and anyone he feels has turned away from traditional African values.
To strengthen the party's base, he has campaigned aggressively in rural, impoverished areas. And the nation's poor, who are almost all black, still largely back the ANC.
The longstanding idea that those voters will remain loyal to the ANC may be slowly crumbling, however, according to researchers from the University of Johannesburg.
Numbers from the May 7 elections show the ANC dropped only three percent in overall support, but suffered more severe, double-digit percentage drops in some areas.
The UJ researchers spoke to 1,200 voters in three impoverished areas to try to find out why this is.
Their study found that 56 percent of respondents support the ANC, which sounds high, but actually shows a steady decline in ANC support since 1994, when the party came to power.
Researchers found declining youth support for the ANC.
They also heard criticism of alleged corruption in the party, but found that among those living in dire poverty, those concerns were trumped by more tangible worries, such as the ANC government’s poor record in reducing crime and maintaining infrastructure.
They further found that residents were willing to shed party loyalties in local elections -- a finding that could promise an exciting municipal election in 2016.
Some analysts already have predicted the ANC will struggle to hang on to the nation’s economic powerhouse, Gauteng province.
Professor Leila Patel said, “In terms of those that would split their vote, there were quite a lot that said they would split their vote, in terms of the national and local elections.”
Researchers say they plan to do more studies on what is still an emerging trend.