At first glance, the African National Congress (ANC) should be alarmed that its national support has dropped from a peak of 69.8% in the 2004 general election to 54.7% in the latest opinion poll published by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR). A closer look suggests that those who think the ANC has been in power quite long enough are the ones who should really be alarmed.
For our poll shows that support for the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) is running at 12.2% nationally. Add this to the ANC's 54.7%, and the result is that support for South Africa's two socialist parties is running at 66.9%, which is higher than the ANC's 65.9% showing in 2009, before its youth wing reinvented itself (perhaps temporarily) as the EFF.
Our poll also shows that support for the Democratic Alliance (DA) is more or less at the same level as in the 2014 election, 22.3%.
If the DA in some respects, especially racial policy, has been characterised as ANC-lite, then the two socialist parties might be characterised as ANC plus. The only real policy difference between the EFF and the ANC is that the former wants the latter to pursue socialist policies much more vigorously.
The IRR's poll throws up plenty of startling results. In a nutshell: despite their considerable dissatisfaction with the ANC's performance, notably in promoting growth, generating jobs, and fighting crime and corruption, 70% of ANC voters think their party is "good at governing". They also think their party is the one most likely to fix the country's problems.
For example, 51% of ANC voters are jobless, 82% say that unemployment is the issue that concerns them most, and 67% are dissatisfied with the government's performance in generating growth and jobs. Despite these figures, despite the continuing absence of any policy likely to stimulate growth and reduce unemployment, 59% of ANC voters still think their party best placed to create growth and jobs.
My colleague Gareth van Onselen, who designed the survey, notes the contrast between the "delivery brands" of the DA and the ANC among their respective supporters. The DA's brand is strong and the ANC's "relatively weak". Despite this, confidence in the ANC as a government remains surprisingly high.
Growth and jobs are not the only example. Thus, although 54% of ANC voters regard their party as corrupt, 47% believe that the ANC is best placed to fight corruption. Most ANC voters are dissatisfied with their party's performance in fighting crime, but 52% think it is the party best placed to do so.
Even though only 53% of its own voters think the ANC keeps its promises, two thirds of them say their party "cares about people like me" and "people of my race". This testifies to the success of the ANC in projecting itself as the party that cares the most about the black poor. But it also suggests that ANC voters think its successes in "delivery" outweigh its failures there, which is arguably true in the provision of housing, no-fee schooling, free if erratic and often polluted water, and other things, even electricity.
This point is borne out by our survey's findings on education and health care. Despite the widely publicised ANC failures in these fields, the proportions of ANC voters satisfied with its performance here outnumber the proportions of those who think it has failed. Moreover, 67%- 68% of ANC voters think theirs is the party best placed to deliver these services.
Perhaps the most noteworthy finding of all in our survey is that 60% of ANC voters in Gauteng are satisfied with the government's healthcare performance. This after the 144 Life Esidemedi deaths.
There may therefore be another factor at work in explaining the extraordinarily high levels of confidence in, and loyalty to, the ANC, notwithstanding its economic failures, ineptitude, callous negligence, destructiveness, prodigality, and depravity. This is that ANC voters do not have high expectations of their government. Yes, it is corrupt. Yes, it has failed in fighting crime and in generating economic growth and employment. Yes, we know that angry communities across the country are prone to stage protests, including violent protests, against service delivery failures. But this is our party, our identity, right or wrong.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.