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26 July 2016

How close do voters feel to their political party of choice?

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)
Press Release


Speculation is rife that the ruling party has lost some of its appeal among South Africans, many of whom have grown frustrated with waiting for the promises of a “better life for all”. According to some analysts, disillusionment with the ANC has gradually been building over the past few years, with people generally feeling that the ruling party is out of touch with the hardships of ordinary citizens. As a result, analysts have ventured that alignment or “feelings of closeness” to the ruling party has been diminishing. In this article, Jare Struwig, Stephen Gordon and Benjamin Roberts explore alignment with the ruling party over time and also how it compares with other parties.

Data from the South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS), an annual cross-national opinion survey was used in this study. The SASAS sample is 3 500 adults aged 16 years and older living in private homes. Most rounds of the survey are conducted between October and December of each year and all questionnaires are translated into the various major languages of the country.

For a number of years, SASAS has asked respondents: “To which [political] party do you feel most close?” The question was open-ended and respondents could pick any political party in South Africa. Responses to this question do not indicate who a respondent would vote for however. A person may feel close to one political party but vote for another or not vote at all. Rather we should see responses to this question as an indication of potential political support. We can use responses to this question to detect individual identification with a particular political party.

Responses to political party closeness are displayed in Figure 1 for the period 2008-2015. The results show that a majority of ordinary South Africans consistently selected the African National Congress (ANC) in 2015. Levels of identification with the ANC have fluctuated only moderately between 2008 and 2015. According to our data, the share of the adult population naming the Democratic Alliance (DA) has grown over time. In 2008 approximately 8% of the population selected the DA, and in 2015 this figure had risen to 13%. In 2015, 5% of adult South Africans said that they felt close to the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). A rather surprisingly large proportion of the adult public, when asked this question, either refused to say or said that they didn’t feel close to any party.

It is possible to look at who selected the ANC and the DA by race and gender for the period 2008-2015, as shown in Table 1. Racial minority members tend, on average, to name the DA as the party they feel close to and the aggregated level of attachment has grown for certain groups. In 2008, for instance, 25% of coloured women selected the DA but in 2015 44% of this group selected this party. A similar trend was observed for Indian women who were, on average, more likely to select the DA in 2015 than in 2008. The bulk of the black African adult majority identified the ANC as the party they felt close to. Interestingly, fewer black African men selected the ANC in 2015 (60%) than in 2010 (67%). It was interesting to note that almost a tenth (9%) of black African men named the EFF as the party they felt close to in 2015.

After asking to identify which party they feel close to, respondents were asked: “How close do you feel to this party?” Responses ranged from very close to not at all close. Using this question we can gauge the level of attachment to a particular political party. The results (Figure 2) show that most ANC supporters felt quite close to their party. However, the portion of supporters who say they felt either not close or not at all close has grown over the period, increasing from 14% in 2008 to 22% in 2015.

Looking at the level of party closeness among DA supporters for the same period (Figure 3). The data indicates that the bulk of DA supporters feel quite close to the party although the percentage of those who felt either not close or not at all close has risen over the period. In 2008 12% of DA supporters said they felt not close or not at all close while in 2015 23% shared this view. Combined with a similar trend amongst ANC supporters, it would seem that there is a decline of attachment amongst supporters of the country’s traditional political parties.

EFF supporters are few in number but when asked about how close they feel about their party, these supporters tend to demonstrate higher levels of attachment than ANC or DA supporters. In 2015 55% of EFF supporters felt very close to their party compared to 35% of ANC supporters and 27% of DA supporters.

Going into the 2016 Local Government Elections it is clear that voter’s alignment, identification ‘’or feelings of closeness” to the party of choice among ANC and DA voter have not shifted dramatically over the past seven years. However, there is evidence that “feelings of closeness” have gradually declined among both ANC and DA supporters. In contrast, ‘’feelings of closeness’’ among supporters of the EFF is much higher compared to supporters of the DA and ANC. Supporters of the EFF therefore align and identify much stronger with the party than DA and ANC supporters. Although it is not in the ambit of this article to speculate about the implications of these findings, research has shown that close alignment with a party of choice impacts on voting intention. Voters that feel more aligned or “close” to a party are much more inclined to cast a ballot in support of their party of choice. Voter turnout during the 2016 Local Government Elections will be closely monitored to determine if this was the case.