Only the MPC can shatter antiquated loyalties

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on what the latest polls say, ahead of the 2024 elections


The Independent Electoral Commission has announced with what one hopes is justifiable fanfare — no repeat of running out of indelible ink, mislaying ballot boxes or opening polls late and closing them early — that it's all geared up and ready for next year’s general election.

Since then, opposition politicians of all stripes have been stridently urging President Cyril Ramaphosa to announce the actual date, which at present is known only to the inner circles of the governing party. Given that the terms of office of the current provincial and national legislatures end on 18 May 2024, the election has to be within the following 90 days. He can, however, call a snap election before 18 May, should the gods of undeserved fortune grant the African National Congress a political windfall. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

The election countdown has all the political players and pundits purring with pleasure. Opposition party leaders, who have become accustomed over three decades to surviving on the fumes of faint hopes, are full of cocky talk of a government “in deep trouble” and that this will be “a watershed”, “a turning point”, and “a last chance”.

Their optimism may be justified. Change is certainly overdue.

By Ramaphosa’s admission, there were “nine wasted years” under President Jacob Zuma. And little has improved during the past seven years of his administration, while much has got worse.

The country is battered and on its knees. Corporate leaders and academics debate exactly what a “failed state” is and whether we are one.

South Africans, as a people, are weary and browbeaten — although a Rugby World Cup win on Saturday would go a long way to reviving the national spirit of the middle class— and there is a widespread feeling that this might be the last chance to pull the nation out of a suicidal downwards spiral.

A well-timed survey of registered voters conducted by The Brenthurst Foundation and SABI Strategy gives some support for the thesis that, at last, the times may be a-changing. It shows that over the past year, there has been a pronounced swing from the African National Congress (ANC) to the advantage of the loose coalition of opposition parties and groups gathered under the umbrella of the Multi-Party Charter (MPC).

Much has been made in the media of their headline finding that 41% of the electorate intends to vote ANC (down from 48% a year ago), with the MPC at 36% (up from 34%). The MPC is also neck-to-neck with the ANC in Gauteng (37% each) and dwarfs it in KwaZulu-Natal (46% to 32%) and the Western Cape (58% to 22%)

Given that the poll’s margin of error is 3%, such figures presage a hard-contested election that could see the ANC humiliated nationally for the first time. This is remarkable, given that the MPC is barely a year old and fewer than half of those surveyed were familiar with it. Another plus for the MPC is that despite the hash that coalitions have been making of municipal governments throughout the land, more than seven out of 10 voters were happy to see a coalition of some kind governing the country.

On the other hand, the positives should be set against the powerful performance in the survey of the Economic Freedom Party (EFF) — six points up over a year, at 17% of the vote — as well as the potential fragility of the MPC coalition

For, whatever its founding documents may say, the MPC is not a gathering of equals. It is dominated by the Democratic Alliance (DA), with all the baggage of voter prejudice regarding the DA’s supposed “whiteness” that this brings.

Fully two-thirds of the MPC’s potential vote in 2024 comes from the DA’s projected 23%. The next biggest party, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) garners only 7%, less than a third of the DA contribution. Action SA (ASA) is projected to draw a mere 3% of the vote and Freedom Front Plus (FF+) only 2%. All the other parties combined score a paltry 4%.

The DA leadership will have to handle this particular nettle with sensitivity. While the little parties are, in sum, critical to the MPC’s success, the proportional share that each contributes is so negligible that the DA will be tempted to throw its weight around. Big political egos, like ASA’s Herman Mashaba, are sure to chaff if that happens.

Nor can the MPC easily solve the problems of DA domination and perceived whiteness by simply finding a more acceptable public face to lead the coalition. Well, not unless they could get Ramaphosa on board.

Although our beaming and avuncular president has slid in the Brenthurst/SABI favourability ratings, he nevertheless was the only leader to achieve a nett positive score. (I’ve calculated nett scores by offsetting the favourability and unfavourability figures. In this case, Ramaphosa had a favourability score of 42%, down from 48% in 2022, and a rise in unfavourability to 40%, up from 32% in 2022, which gives him a nett rating of +2%.)

Incidentally, just three years ago, an Ipsos poll gave Ramaphosa a nett favourability rating of 32%. An indication of the president’s slowly waning magic.

The also-rans to Ramaphosa are the DA’s John Steenhuisen at -8% and Helen Zille at -7% — it’s a recognition of that party’s continuing leadership problems that the pollsters uniquely sampled for both the present and former DA leaders — and Mashaba at -11%. The EFF’s Julius Malema is the least popular reader among all parties, with a nett score of -17%.

Steenhuisen, however, has the last laugh. When asked who should lead the MPC, Steenhuisen at 29% was more than twice as often preferred as Mashaba (14%) and Hlabisa (13%), although it must be said that one in four respondents didn’t know or refused to answer.

There’s been much hopeful speculation that the MPC’s leader could come from those as yet outside the coalition. But the survey shows these people all have ground to make up. RISE Mzansi’s Songezo Zibi has a nett favourability rating of -8%, while Build One SA’s Mmusi Maimane is at a desultory -16%.

These are surprisingly poor ratings given the lavishly positive media coverage that these personality-led opposition movements have received since launching. Of course, as the election hots up, there is the possibility that one of these men — and they all are men — may yet catch the popular imagination and be catapulted into prominence.

It must be noted that neither RISE nor BOSA are, yet, members of the MPC members. Although, based on the findings in this survey, it is difficult to see how they will have any meaningful impact if they don’t join.

The poll puts their combined share of the vote at about 4%. The limited headway that these parties have made outside the MPC is shown by their nett favourability assessments by a sceptical electorate. BOSA comes out at -9% (4% favourable and 13% unfavourable), while RISE is at -10% (4% favourable and 14% unfavourable).

In contrast, the DA will be buoyed by the finding that, for the first time, the DA is viewed more favourably than the ANC, albeit by the narrowest of margins of 37% to 36%. 

Even more telling is the process that has given the DA this knife-edge advantage. Over the past year, the ANC’s favourability rating dropped six points, while the DA’s rose seven points. ANC unfavourability rose six points to 44%, while the DA’s dropped five points to 36%.

Interestingly, the FF+ and the IFP were the only other two parties to become less unpopular — the IFP dropping two points to 42% and the FF+ dropping five to 33%

Whatever hopes the survey might have fanned in opposition circles — a Social Research Foundation survey with a much larger 5% margin of error this week pegged the DA vote even higher at 31%, with the ANC at 45% and the EFF at 9% — such expectations should be tempered with the awareness that there remains a powerful tendency towards inertia in the South African body politic. It is hard to shake the tribal loyalties that are reflected in  current voting patterns and intentions.

South Africans continue to vote with their hearts, not their heads. Despite 57% saying that the ANC is most responsible for the state the country is in — only 5% blame racism or apartheid, while 2% blame the DA — 41% still intend to vote for it. 

This voter perversity is reflected also in the statistic that only 30% of voters believe the ANC governs effectively, yet between 43%-45%, depending on turnout, will vote for it. Virtually the same percentage of voters (29%) believe that the DA is the most effective party at governance, yet only 23% will cast their vote for it. That’s only 1% more than voted for the DA in 2019, against a backdrop of continued ANC-led failure and chaos. 

There are two key takeaways from the survey for opposition parties and their supporters.

The first is that the MPC, preferably enlarged, is the only credible route to an opposition electoral victory. Second, the MPC needs a leader who can inspire voters to take that momentous step — to move from merely despising the ANC to actually casting a ballot against it.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye