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03 August 2016

Municipal Elections 2016 and attitudes towards current political leaders in SA

Gary Pienaar, Mojalefa Dipholo, Jare Struwig, Steven Gordon and Ben Roberts - Democracy, Governance and Service Delivery Programme, Human Sciences Research Council
Press Release

After the election rallies this past weekend, will voters turn out to cast their ballots on Wednesday? During the campaign, voters have expressed frustration and anger at the inadequate performance of elected representatives, and cynicism about the absence of political leaders from communities between elections. Will constituents’ unhappiness with their socio-economic circumstances and with local leadership affect electoral participation? Do voters continue to believe that democracy can deliver improvements in their daily lives?

The Human Sciences Research Council’s South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS) 2015 results reflect a bifurcated attitude regarding the performance of democratically elected leadership, on the one hand, and democracy, on the other.

In late 2015, 57% of voting age South Africans said that they were dissatisfied with the current political leadership in the country. 28% was satisfied, while the remainder was neutral. Residents in metropolitan areas were less satisfied than rural voters. There has been a general decline in metropolitan-based voters’ political leadership satisfaction between 2011 and 2015.

No statistically significant difference was noted between the age categories in their views of political leaders. However, there were distinct racial differences. Racial minorities were, on average, more dissatisfied with current political leaders in South Africa than the racial majority. But even amongst the Black African majority, more than half (51%) were dissatisfied. Comparing attitudes in 2015 and 2011 by race group, the share of the Black African majority who are satisfied with current leaders has moderately declined – from 37% in 2011 to 33% in 2015. A sharper decline in satisfaction was observed amongst the Coloured minority – from 21% in 2011 to 12% in 2015.

SASAS voting age respondents were also asked about their voting status and intentions.

South Africans who were either registered to vote or who intended to register, were more satisfied, in general, with political leaders than those who refused to register. Women, on average, tended to be less satisfied with political leaders than men, regardless of voter registration status. Of those who said they were not registered and did not intend to register, only 21% were satisfied with political leaders in South Africa. This suggests that those who will not to participate in the 2016 municipal elections are more politically disillusioned than those who are participating.

Only 10% of respondents said they would not vote, while 72% said that they would vote. 74% agreed that citizens have a duty to vote, while only 14% disagreed. Of those who would not vote, only half said that they thought democracy is preferable to any other kind of government. Of those who said they would vote, 63% preferred a democratic system of government.

On balance, therefore, South Africans retain confidence in the ability of the democratic system to deliver improvements in their lives and circumstances. Disapproval doesn’t necessarily mean disengagement. On the contrary, recent information indicates increased levels of democratic interest and engagement, although it may be open to doubt whether or not this engagement is entirely in the public interest.

The Electoral Commission (IEC) reports that a record number of political parties and candidates registered to compete in the 2016 municipal elections. A record of over 61 000 candidates and 200 parties and will participate, representing approximately 65% more parties and about 12% more candidates than in the 2011 municipal elections.

How might we explain these increased levels of interest in public office?

Several quite different explanations seem plausible.

Voters may be so dissatisfied with existing leadership that many believe that they might do a better job of it themselves.

Another more unsettling possibility is that public office may be as merely an opportunity for employment in a flagging economic environment. An even less encouraging interpretation might be that municipal office is viewed as a means to secure access to public resources for private or sectional benefit.

The Auditor-General’s recent report on municipal finances for the period 2011-2015 records the seeming inability of many local governments to halt the misallocation of municipal resources. Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu observed that ‘the audit outcomes of municipalities in Limpopo, North West and the Northern Cape have been disappointing at best’.

An intriguing correlation arises between the AG’s findings regarding these three provinces and the IEC’s figures for electoral candidates in these same provinces. The largest increases in the numbers of aspirant councillors have occurred in the Limpopo, North West and Northern Cape provinces. The violent protests in Vuwani, Limpopo, and the fallout of the Tlokwe by-election in the North West continue to reverberate.

If the increased numbers of parties and candidates reflects a public-spirited commitment to get involved and disrupt increasingly entrenched patrimonial hierarchies, local democracy may be about to undergo a long overdue revival. However, some candidates seek merely to take power in order to divert public resources. In these circumstances, an important tool for voters could have been political finance transparency. If candidates had been obliged by law to disclose their largest donors, voters would be in a better position to take informed decisions regarding candidates’ possible intentions.  Local democracy cannot thrive, or survive, if elections are seen as merely a scramble for resources.