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New UJ study reveals the complexity and nuance of voter choices

Is party loyalty still a determining factor in South African politics? And what role do demographics like race, age and gender play? New University of Johannesburg (UJ) research shines a light on the profile of the South African voter, the complexity at play in their minds, and the power of trust in President Ramaphosa in shaping voter preferences.

The latest results of an ambitious, nationally representative voter preferences study conducted by the Centre for Social Development in Africa (CSDA) on Tuesday, 9 April 2019, at Auckland Park Bunting Road Campus shows a swing back towards the ANC as leadership changes reignites support.

Said Prof Leila Patel, UJ’s CSDA Director and SARChI Chair in Welfare and Social Development: “This is the second wave of the three-year study on socio-economic rights and democracy and follows on from October 2018 when the CSDA released the first findings into what drives voter preferences in South Africa (SA). The overall goal was to uncover how matters like socio-economic vs democratic rights, perceptions of government and corruption, and issues of governance influence voter preference. Socio-economic rights refers to income, jobs, housing and social grants among others while democratic are the right to vote, access to courts and freedom of expression.”

The study also used robust statistical and regression models to discover the weight that voters give these factors and the predictive power they may have on determining who votes for whom.

With the 2019 elections now just a month away, the results of the second wave – conducted in Q4 2018 and launched on 9 April 2019– offer a timely glimpse into how perceptions of the prevailing national issues and power shifts in the African National Congress (ANC) can change hearts and minds.

  • ‘Trust in the presidency’, for example, improved since wave 1, with 55% of respondents saying they trust the presidency under Cyril Ramaphosa, compared to 26% under former president Jacob Zuma.
  • Tough economic times may also be a considerable factor: The latest research reveals a reversal in priority between rights in theory and needs in practice, specifically that 58,5% of respondents rank socio-economic well-being as more important (up from 44,6% previously), while 26,7% considered democratic rights to be more important (down from 42,9% previously).

This study is the first empirical test of voting behaviour determinants conducted on this scale in the country. Significantly, said CSDA Professor Leila Patel, the survey is not an opinion poll, nor a prediction of who will actually vote. Rather, it attempts to understand why potential voters support their party of choice. With this in mind, it draws on broader trends on voting behaviour and unpacks these using quantitative means – offering up rich, detailed findings that the researchers hope will contribute insight to the ongoing political dialogue and debate about democracy and socio-economic rights achievements.

It is also, as Patel emphasises, a study of a particular political moment in the country’s democracy. “Despite huge constraints that a Ramaphosa presidency is likely to face (in order to realise the commitments that have been made and in a divided party), the shifts in voter opinion and choices reported on could mean that there is buoyancy in the public agenda and hope that the ANC under new leadership can forge a path out of our current quagmire. For those who indicated support for the opposition, perceived increases in corruption remains a decisive factor in their choices.”

Prof Leila Patel
Prof Leila Patel
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