Political party posters are displayed on lamposts in the Western Cape. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Political party posters are displayed on lamposts in the Western Cape. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

Service delivery protests are up and trust in political institutions is down. Statements along these lines have been fuelling discussions at every level of the public sphere, from newspaper columns to radio debates, the boardroom table to the dinner table. But why do South Africans vote for a particular party over another?

In the past decade we have witnessed an erosion of the ANC’s electoral majority, major metropoles changing hands and the emergence of fierce competitor parties, and an entirely new political language has cascaded from tweets to student and youth protesters to the halls of parliament and beyond. A whole new political world is unfolding, but will we see this reflected in the 2019 election results?

If the data holds, yes. The first wave of analysis from our newly released Centre for Social Development in Africa (CSDA) study, based on data collected in November and early December last year, shows key shifts in voter preferences and perceptions that could transform the political landscape. The outcomes both confirm and challenge some of the most widely held beliefs about what informs marking our Xs.

A first-of-its-kind national study, this research set out to ask: “What influences political party preferences of SA voters in the run-up to the 2019 elections?” Researchers spoke to more than 3,390 people from a random and nationally representative sample. Specifically, we delved into a better understanding of whether SA voters care about socioeconomic rights implementation, trust in governance and perceptions of corruption. Plus, whether demographic factors (age, race, gender), party loyalty and social grant provision — often touted as a key element in maintaining ANC dominance — hold sway over voters.

After the data collection, we broke the findings down according to demographics and ran complex statistical analyses, including logistic regression, to assess the predictive nature of the various factors on voters’ choices. We found that:

  •  Support for the ANC continues to decline, then sitting at 53%; and 
  • The reasons for voter choice are beginning to shift.

The data shows that trust in the institution emerged as the main reason for voting for a particular political party (37%). Although the reason for choosing a party on the basis that it brought freedom and democracy was still important to prospective voters (35%), the likelihood that a party will bring a better life was a close third (32%).

In addition,

  •  Although 86% of respondents did not think receipt of a social grant affected their voting preferences, this was not the case for social grant beneficiaries. A quarter (25%) of social grant beneficiaries indicated that fears that they could lose their social grants if they voted for another party were influential in their choices. On this latter point (through the regression discussed below) we see the motivating factor not as the provision itself, but the fear of its removal.


  • Our regression model explored factors that were likely predictors of voting preferences. Perceptions of governance, socioeconomic rights protection and corruption were all found to be statistically significant in determining for which party a respondent votes. Factors such as age, race, education and gender were all shown to be statistically significant in the analysis — as is the aforementioned issue of fear of grant removal if another party came to power. Women were less likely to vote for the governing party than men.

This is only the first of three national cross-sectional surveys planned until October 2019. If the data holds over time, the days of an outright ANC majority may well be numbered. But the two opposition parties with the next-biggest support bases simply don’t have the numbers to take it. This could prompt the advent of a coalition government as early as 2019.

For now this is too early to call definitively, but it is clear that party loyalty is declining, and other factors — socioeconomic rights protection and implementation, trust in government institutions, trust in the president of the country, issues of governance and the perception of increased corruption — are becoming increasingly important as we approach the next general election.

These are the bread-and-butter issues that parties must recommit to in demonstrable ways if they want to stay relevant and appeal to tomorrow’s voters.

• Patel is professor and SA research chair in welfare and social development, and director of the CSDA, at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). Sadie is professor of politics at UJ and Bryer a researcher at the CSDA.