It is widely believed in political circles that the EFF and the DA are hoping — praying almost — for a victory by Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma over Cyril Ramaphosa in the ANC’s presidential election race, and polls of various descriptions appear to back up their belief that it will be easier to win votes from traditional ANC supporters were Dlamini-Zuma to emerge victorious.
How seriously should ANC delegates to the Johannesburg conference, which begins this weekend, take these polls? Should they be a factor in their decision over who should lead the party?
The short answer is, definitely. Polls, particularly political ones, have a poor reputation in SA. They are expensive to conduct, so sample sizes tend to be very small. They are usually conducted over the phone, which is often less accurate than person-to-person interviews. They also tend to focus on urban dwellers in a society that has a significant rural population. Additionally, political choices can be dangerous in SA, so the number of people who refuse to answer polls is sometimes very high. And on top of that, there is the problem all polls face: when in doubt, people tend to provide answers they think might satisfy the questioner or their perception of the public ethos at the time, rather than saying what they actually think. In short, they lie.
Perhaps the most egregious poll misunderstanding happened in November 2013 in connection with the 2014 general election, when Ipsos suggested that support for the ANC had dropped to 53%. In the event, the ANC won 62.15% of the vote. However, it wasn’t sufficiently understood at the time that 19% of the poll respondents either abstained or said they didn’t know. Once the pollsters corrected for this very high abstention rate and reduced the number of undecideds to the likely outcome, the polls suggested the ANC would win 64% of the vote.
The dramatic part of this poll is that it found that DA leader Mmusi Maimane’s support came in just higher than Dlamini-Zuma’s at 42% and EFF leader Julius Malema came in at 24.4%
A subsequent poll in early February got even closer to the final tally and suggested the ANC would win 63.4%, but unfortunately the pollsters shifted their estimate back to 64% just before the election.
However, it would appear that polling has become more sophisticated, because the pollsters were amazingly accurate in the 2016 local government elections. Ipsos claimed the ANC would win 46% of the vote in Johannesburg, and it actually won 44.5%. It also predicted the ANC would win 37% of Nelson Mandela Bay and it ultimately won 40.9%. Like the ANC, it slightly underestimated support for the DA in Nelson Mandela Bay and underestimated it in Johannesburg, but by less than two percentage points. It must be said its estimate in Tshwane was massively wrong, dramatically overestimating the ANC’s support, although it managed to get the DA’s support almost exactly right.
The point is that two new polls show the ANC is likely to win less than half the vote if Dlamini-Zuma wins the ANC contest, and it will be forced to join coalitions in order to rule. A Kantar TNS poll conducted in March 2017 found that Ramaphosa had the support of 56% of people living in the metros, while Dlamini-Zuma scored only 41.8%.
The dramatic part of this poll is that it found that DA leader Mmusi Maimane’s support came in just higher than Dlamini-Zuma’s at 42% and EFF leader Julius Malema came in at 24.4%. It should be noted that "support" is defined as anyone who said they "definitely support" or even "support a little bit".
Much more recently, an organisation called Ratepop, which uses the internet to poll, forecast a more dramatic difference. It found that Ramaphosa remains the "overwhelming" popular choice‚ with the support of 58.9% of ANC voters compared with 16% for Dlamini-Zuma. If Dlamini-Zuma becomes leader of the ANC‚ only 6.9% of the DA’s black voters will desert the party and vote for the ANC in 2019‚ the survey found, while if Ramaphosa gets in, 51% of the DA’s black voters will vote for the ANC.
These polls are only indicative and the 2019 elections are years away. But their findings, could, and perhaps should, be on the minds of ANC conference delegates.