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A Silent Revolution: South African voters during the first years of democracy 1994-2006

Year: 2006
Working paper number: 162
Author: Schulz-Herzenberg, Collette
Unit: DARU

Since the onset of democracy in 1994, South Africa's elections have returned similar levels of support for the major political parties. However, aggregate electoral stability does not necessarily shed light on the complexities that affect party support and voting intentions; nor does it tell us much about the increasing impact of socio-economic change on long-standing cleavage and electoral behaviour. Using data from eight national public opinion surveys spanning 1994 to 2004, this paper looks at trends and patterns in partisanship over time, explores changes to the demographic support bases of parties and the motivations of South African voters and finally reflects on the results of the 2006 municipal elections, which are compared to overall trends in party support. This paper finds that dramatic socio-economic changes do not seem to have impacted heavily on the social composition of the ANC's support base. There is little or no shift of allegiance across party lines by racial and other social groups. Instead, the strongest suggestion of electoral volatility lies in diminishing party loyalties for all parties and the corresponding growth of a 'floating' or an independent electorate. Rather than voters moving their support to another political party, partisanship has simply declined. Social groups remain important cues or information shortcuts for South African voters. Yet, partisan dealignment, coupled with a higher potential for inter-party movement, also suggests that static cleavage structures inherited from 1994 do not determine voting behaviour. Individual voters do not appear to be dominated by long-term socialised party attachments but also inform their party identification using evaluations of government performance and make reasoned judgments when choosing which party to support. The ANC still holds mass appeal across key demographic groups. Yet several factors signal that the ANC's support may become less broad based, as the party becomes increasingly reliant on specific segments of the public for its electoral support. A silent revolution may have its biggest hold among the youngest voters who are becoming less aligned and the new middle classes who show signs of growth in partisanship. Moreover, dealignment and demographic changes within the entire population have begun to change levels of partisanship as the sizes and distribution of different social groups alter and affect voting results. Although party loyalties seldom shift abruptly it would seem that partisanship in South Africa has fluctuated considerably more than is often acknowledged. Yet, electoral change has not yet had visible electoral consequences for the percentages of support for the governing party but instead has subtle implications for active political engagement and partisanship. Despite fewer voters predisposed towards any party new political contenders have been slow to emerge and garner a serious portion of the national vote. In the face of continued one-party dominance, and electoral stagnation, the greatest challenge for democracy in the next decade will be maintaining high levels of incumbent responsiveness towards citizens.

Publication file: wp162.pdf