The historic victory of Democratic Alliance Students Organisation (DASO) at the University of Fort Hare (UFH) has generated much analysis and speculation on the meaning and significance of this triumph for the 2016 Local Government Elections.
Generally seen as a political earthquake set to change the political game come 2016, this victory also shook the African National Congress’ (ANC) confidence within its heartland.
There has been much analysis in explaining this astounding shift of political allegiance in student politics at an institution considered the home of great ANC leaders.
Yet, the first indicators of a shift in political allegiance of “born free” university students was already evident before the 2014 General Elections.
In 2013 we collected 922 surveys across tertiary institutions in the Eastern Cape. As our future lawyers, journalists, accountants, and public servants, for example, we wanted to know who “born free” university students vote for, why they vote for a particular political party, what are their perceptions of race relations, key policy concerns and perceptions of quality of life. In a nutshell we wanted to know the perceptions that shape political identity and party affiliation in a generation that had matured politically under exclusive ANC rule.
Asking participants to pretend they were eligible to vote in 2009, 65 % of students at the University of Fort Hare had said that they would vote for the ANC compared to 17 % who would have voted for the Democratic Alliance (DA).
When we asked whom they would vote for in 2014, 51 % of the students sampled at the University of Fort Hare had said they would vote for the ANC, compared to 25 % who said they would vote for the DA. We saw a similar trend at other Eastern Cape Universities.
Liberation, race, transformation and a fear of the opposition were key factors that created the perception that there is a historical obligation to vote for ANC. Forty-two percent of university students who would vote ANC identified liberation as the key reason why they would vote for the ANC.
Liberation was linked to a fear of the opposition (specifically the DA) as a “white party”, and, should they be elected into power, transforming South African society would be stunted. Essentially participants demonstrate that there is a lack of trust in “white people with political power”.
The ANC was also seen as a caretaker of the people through the social grant system. Interestingly those who held this view did not draw a distinction between the ANC as a political party and the state as an entity. For them a great fear was that should the DA take over government, they would lose their social grant and life would be much harder than it currently is.
The narrative of underlying support for the DA was driven by sense that the ANC had failed to deliver a better life. For 24 % of participants who said they would vote DA would do so because the ANC failed to deliver on their promises. Interestingly, the effect of the 2011 and 2014 election campaigns of the DA premised on the story of Cape Town and the Western Cape solidified the perception that the DA is “…a party that delivers” and a “…party that practices good governance” for 33 % of those who indicated that they would vote DA.
This narrative of better delivery and good governance also formed the basis for the “it is time for change” discourse. 27 % felt that there was a lot of gratitude to the ANC for liberating South Africa, but corruption, a lack of credibility, poor governance and a failure to deliver meant it was time for change, and per implication, a chance for the DA to govern.
Factors that shape political affiliation to the ANC and the DA are rooted in perceptions of the ability of the party to deliver. While the narrative of ANC affiliation highlighted delivery, especially in terms of social welfare, the narrative of the DA put forward that the idea that there is greater capacity and political will to deliver.
We know that while DASO secured a victory at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in 201, dominant democratic parties, like the ANC, rely on two factors to maintain rule: (1) the ability to win an overwhelming majority of vote with a protected core that opposition parties cannot penetrate, and (2) a public perception of effectiveness within this protected core in order to get them to the polls. In other words, we are the party for the poor advancing your interests and if you want to continue to enjoy the benefits of democracy you have to vote for us.
Dominant democratic parties, however, very often face a crisis of delivery, and the ANC is not immune to this. It is this crisis in delivery that creates political space for opposition parties to penetrate a dominant party’s protected electoral core. This “switch” in affiliation is not unconditional, as very often if opposition parties cannot deliver, voters may return to the dominant party or stay away from the polls.
We know that while DASO secured a victory at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) in 2011, the pendulum swung back to South African Students Congress (SASCO) a mere two years later. One year later DASO secured another victory at NMMU.
As we move towards 2016 in the immediate future and 2019 later on, political parties will not just have to talk the talk, but also walk the walk of delivery. In future, educated voters will in all likelihood assess political parties on their track record instead of their discourse. It would thus be naïve for political parties to rely solely on a loyal voter, at least at university level. Students have shown that they will hold parties to account for failure to deliver on promises by punishing them through transferring their vote.
To what extent this dynamic will play out in the broader political playing field remains to be seen. What we do know is that it will make for an interested and contested election come 2016.
Joleen Steyn Kotze is Associate Professor in Political Science in the Department of Political and Conflict studies. Her research is supported by the National Research Foundation, and the Konrad-Adenauer Stiftung. She writes in her personal capacity.
– By Joleen Steyn Kotze