SA's abused and passive electorate

William Saunderson-Meyer assesses the results of a recent IRR political survey


Corruption and societal collapse have reduced South African voters to the kind of passivity often seen in abusive domestic relationships.

The victim is painfully aware of the costs of remaining but cannot conceive an existence beyond the living hell they’re in. Similarly, while South African voters are pained by the societal devastation inflicted upon the country in the past 27 years, they appear to lack the volition to find a political home away from their abuser, the African National Congress.

Instead, they remain perversely wedded to the idea that there is a knight in shining armour who will turn their abuser into a warm and caring guardian, committed to the common good. The knight is, of course, our perennially amiable and ineffectual president, Cyril Ramaphosa.

The Institute of Race Relations has just released a poll showing that Ramaphosa — despite three years of meandering leadership — is still by a mighty margin the most popular political leader in the country. While barely half (50.3%) of the respondents would vote for the ANC, 62% had a favourable or somewhat favourable view of Ramaphosa.

As the IRR writes: “The president’s popularity seems impervious to the sorry state of the nation or the party which he leads, and he remains its greatest vote-getter.”

In contrast, Democratic Alliance leader John Steenhuisen rates a dismal 11.3%. This is just over half of the 20.5% who would vote for his party.

What must be particularly worrying for the country’s official opposition is that almost 46% of respondents were unfamiliar with his name. That’s less than the 62% who didn’t know Pieter Groenewald of Freedom Front Plus but more than the 41% who did not know Action SA’s Herman Mashaba.

Part of the problem is Steenhuisen himself. Belying his impressive performances in the parliamentary debating chamber, he has a lacklustre public persona that has not been burnished by a prickly ego that causes him to over-react to any and every perceived slight. Nor does it help that he remains in the shadow of former party leader Helen Zille, who is a relentless hogger of headlines, mostly negative.

Another aspect of the low public recognition of Steenhuisen is widespread media animosity. The editorial commentary is remorselessly negative, focusing on seemingly minor internal party spats that Steenhuisen has had with former office bearers, to the exclusion of just about everything else.

The personal media hostility extends to his party. The DA struggles to get anything like the kind of evenhanded news coverage — as opposed to opinion pieces — that one would expect from media houses that crow continually about their supposed journalistic professionalism.

Last weekend, I did a quick-and-dirty analysis of the news coverage on one of the media sites. There were four ANC-related articles (two dealing with negative political developments, two with reputation-positive electoral events); there were six DA-related articles (all negative); and eight about the Economic Freedom Fighters (every single one reputation-enhancing coverage of the party’s electioneering activities). 

While the DA’s pathological compulsion to shoot itself in the foot justifies much of the negativity, it is noticeable how few of its humdrum positive actions get any coverage at all. It is also testimony to the major media houses’ continued fascination with the EFF that, with half the popular vote of the DA, it generally gets double the coverage and that most of this reporting is admirably evenhanded, unlike that meted out to the DA.

This contributes to the remarkable public profile of EFF leader Julius Malema, as reflected in the IRR poll.

Unlike the hapless Steenhuisen, only 2.5% of respondents did not know Malema. It says something for the lure of populism that Malema, with a 27.2% rating, was about two-and-a-half times more favourably viewed than Steenhuisen. And Malema’s net favourability — calculated by subtracting negative and positive ratings — gave him a score of -16.7, just ahead of Steenhuisen at -16.5.

Both men, in the public’s perception, are racially divisive figures.

While 58% of whites felt favourably towards Steenhuisen, this dropped to 28% of coloureds, 13% of Indians and 2% of blacks. Among white voters, with a net favourability score of +48, his popularity exceeded even that of Ramaphosa. However, when assessed across all race groups, his overall net favourability was pulled down by a score of -32 among black respondents.

Similar, but opposite, the case with Malema. He was disliked by 43% of all respondents, breaking down to 97% of white respondents, 95% of Indian, and 61% of coloured. Interestingly, and contrary to popular perception, Malema is divisive also in the black community: 36% liked Malema and 36% disliked him.

While we know, despite media obsession with personalities rather than policies, that there is no immutable correlation between leader popularity and electoral votes, the former does influence the latter. It’s not unreasonable to conclude that barring unforeseen developments, without Ramaphosa the ANC would drop below 50% and with Steenhuisen, the DA is unlikely to grow significantly.

This brings us back to the problem of electoral masochism. No matter what the ANC does or fails to do, it remains electorally powerful

The IRR poll found that 68% of respondents believe that state capture is continuing, despite Ramaphosa making the rooting out of corruption a priority. That chimes with a recent AfroBarometer poll which found that 64% of South Africans believe that corruption has worsened under Ramaphosa’s administration, including in the office of the president itself.

Less than a fifth of IRR respondents felt their lives had improved in the past five years. More than 80% said their lives had stagnated or got worse.

The IRR writes. “Yet despite all this, support for the ANC, while declining, is not collapsing. It is being kept aloft by its charismatic and popular frontman, the emotional attachment of the party faithful, and the sheer force of incumbency. But it is the popularity of Mr Ramaphosa that is decisive.

“For the ANC, these are dangerous times, … if its popularity does drop below 50%, as we anticipate, this will be seen as an incontrovertible marker that the times of one-party dominance are coming to an end — and the psychological effect of this will go a long way towards assuring the party’s defeat in 2024.”

Such optimism is probably premature. The prospect of electoral defeat is at least as likely — a la Zimbabwe — to prompt the governing party to use every mechanism available to it, including a packed judiciary and security force repression, to ensure its survival.

In any case, those alienated by the ANC won’t finally turn their back on the party until they have a new political refuge. As the IRR poll indicates, neither of the major opposition parties is even close to being that alternative.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye