In the hands of SA voter – turnout and choice on Election Day 2024

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A series of divergent push-and-pull factors will be driving South Africa’s 27.8 million voters as they decide whether and how they will be voting – and what fate they bestow on South Africa’s iconic but declining African National Congress. Recent weeks have delivered contrasting sets of speculation. This analysis does a brief review of core motivations that will be inspiring or deterring voters.

The first is the voter who is tormented by own disillusionment with the party political system and democratic representation. The sentiment that South Africa’s democratic system does not work is reflected widely in several of the authoritative public opinion polls that have seen the light in the last few years. This voter type is inclined to stay away from the polls, perhaps in protest against parties ‘that do not care’ and leaders that are seen to be corrupt and into self-enrichment. The established parties’ leaders are seen as exploitative, distant. Governance and policymaking are regarded as inconsequential.

Voting will just not make a difference, this voter believes. Alienation rules. This generally despondent, largely distrusting voter figure who ‘has seen it all’ in the course of seven sets of national and provincial elections. This voter has probably witnessed every possible campaign promise and undertaking ever spoken. This voter may also be inspired to turn from the ANC to opposition parties. Splinter party options when the main opposition parties do not fit the bill come to mind.

In a derivative of this voter type, some voters have turned to the Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) party. They believe that this counter-party (notwithstanding what most South Africans see as its ingrained leadership corruption) is a formation that reconnects with the people, is prepared to ‘stand up for the people’, as related in party narratives. The followers have internalised strident desires for revenge on the ‘Ramaphosa ANC’. They see themselves as the new redeemers of the historical ANC, as  the inventors of a new party that will come to bear all the deliverables that have not materialised under ANC government. This will drive them to the polls.

Another factor that will spur voters to go and vote, possibly in large numbers, is the likely historical decline of the ANC to below its level of an outright majority. The date of 29 May 2024 may turn out to be that moment in history that will be relayed to generations to come; it symbolises this historical juncture. Many voters, albeit for divergent reasons, want to use their ballots to record being part of the moment.

For some, it is about the possible embarkation on a phase of more inclusive, coalition government, and they want to be part of a force that may ring in the change. It could bring new national and some provincial governments that may benefit from the wisdom of a collectivity of parties; this type of government could signify a pool of wisdom on policy content and governance that may help lift the country out of its prevailing governance quagmire.

Other voters who embrace the historical moment as reason for voting, will be motivated by the sheer opposition joy of experiencing a relative victory over the ANC – not defeat in terms of installing an alternative government, but one that will involve a humiliation for the ANC. It will entail that the ANC will be unable to govern on its own.

Another motivation for voting will come from  the voter who feels that the ANC may have been erring and failing on transformation and delivery on many fronts, but now needs the voters in its moment of need to help defend it. As former ANC leader Tokyo Sexwale implored voters recently, ‘when the [ANC] house is on fire, everybody has to grab a bucket of water to put out the fire’. Throngs of loyal ANC cadres can be expected to conform this seemingly desperate call.

Many of the formerly typical ANC voters, this time around, are also motivated to confirm through their votes  that they continue to believe in the ANC’s renewal project of the past six years. These loyalists have been urged to believe that leader Cyril Ramaphosa and his ANC mainstream are sincere, and are making headway in the project of renewal of the ANC. These voters are willing to suspend their doubts about Phala Phala, or Bosasa . They will want to affirm, through their votes, their belief in honest motivation and reason of the Ramaphosaists’ assurances that the ANC review project is on track.

Large numbers of voters will also want to continue expressing their gratitude to ANC for having delivered them from apartheid evil, for having made a substantial difference to millions of lives in 30 years of government. This could even be the bulk of votes that will go to the ANC today. These voters will continue to vote ANC, almost habitually. The ANC is the world that they know; no other party in their belief can be trusted equally to continue to act in their interest. No other party, they reckon, will be as eager to retain their favour. For the sake of continuing to secure this ANC disposition, they will probably be trekking many kilometers to cast their ballots, for the ANC.

Whichever angle one uses to assess likely turnout and party choice on Election Day of 29 May 2024, either confirmation-acceleration of the ANC’s decline or a stemming of the tide of its dislodgement is at the centre of the unfolding parade.

Professor Susan Booysen is a political analyst, Director of research at MISTRA, and visiting professor at the Wits School of Governance