South Africa elections: The rural vote

Did the ANC gain the expected solid support from the rural voters?

The ANC won 70 percent of the vote in the Eastern Cape [AP]

The ANC won the recent elections, but not without shifts for the opposition.

When voters went to the polls May 7 to cast a vote for a national and provincial government, there was already a sense of resignation because in spite of the campaign from opposition parties such as the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) , we all knew the African National Congress (ANC) would win the national election with an overwhelming support provincially. The ANC has been the default government since 1994 when Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected president after apartheid.

This default position is largely due to what we know happens to liberation movements: They are supported by the majority of the population, often for complex reasons long after the liberation moment has ended. One would think that given the ANC’s record of corruption, lack of service delivery in poor areas, the Marikana massacre, disgruntled worker unions, the widening gap between the rich and the poor, voters would be happy to let go of the ANC after 20 years. But this is not the case. Predictions from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) indicated that the ANC would still be in power after these elections, although it wouldn’t have the two-thirds majority it once enjoyed.

As the ANC celebrates victory, some analysts have pointed out that there has been a meaningful drop in support for the ANC in these elections, especially in urban areas. Indeed, rural areas have been considered ANC’s stronghold for some time.  But is confidence in ANC dropping only among the urban dwellers?

Where is the rural vote?

The first results of the elections were released an hour after the voting stations had closed on May 7. Results from a village in the Eastern Cape were the first to be counted. This was the first voting station to submit their results (mostly because there were few voters at the station) but it was significant that the first result should come from one of the poorest provinces as well as one of the provinces that has been dubbed the “heartland of the ANC” . The Eastern Cape, which is a largely rural and underdeveloped province with a high unemployment rate and a shambolic education system, confirmed its support for the ANC with a solid 70 percent (one percentage point increase from 2009).

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As, election results started trickling in for the rest of the country, it became clear that  the voter turnout has dropped  (compared to 2009) both nationally and provincially. Limpopo (a rural province) had the lowest at 63.3 percent. This isn’t an alarming figure when compared to 2009, but it is significant when we consider why it is that people in Limpopo are not voting as much as they did five years ago, when turnout was nearly 70 percent. Do they believe the vote would not change anything? The poverty stricken province has seen little attention from the central government; just last year primary schools had to start the year without textbooks, which the education department failed to deliver.

The combined vote for opposition parties rose from 14 percent in 2009 to 21 percent this year in Limpopo. Other rural provinces also witnessed overall rise in vote for the opposition compared to 2009, such as Mpumalanga (a gain of 7 percent), North West (a gain of 6 percent) and Free State (a gain of 2 percent). This change can be attributed to the nature of campaigning in these areas as well as the nature of political shifts that have been happening over the months leading to the election. There are many political issues brewing in these areas (such as service delivery protests, unrest in the mining sector as well as agricultural reform) which could have influenced a shift away from the ANC.

The quantitative nature of the elections means that we do not have a full picture of why people continue to vote for the ANC and what caused some 150,000 people to choose the EFF in a province like Limpopo. Some analysts  have suggested that the ANC is still able to ride on the liberation moment of 1994. No other party has been able to use the slogan “Protect Madiba’s legacy, vote ANC”, nor use the image of the icon without evoking the significance of the liberation movement.

The liberation movement legacy has also managed to catch the attention of first-time voters referred to as the “born-frees” (young people born post 1994 and some chose to vote in the election) in spite of the DA and EFF’s efforts of rallying support from younger voters who don’t have allegiance with the ANC’s liberation struggle. Once the dust has settled over the numbers of the elections, it would be valuable to hear the real voices of those who chose to stay away from the polls, especially in marginalised and rural areas.

Despite the expectations to the contrary, these elections did not turn into a significant loss for the ANC. However, withdrawal of confidence for the ANC in rural areas might be a sign that by 2019 the party will have lost its popularity and will fail to gain a majority. This development, however, will very much dependent on how the opposition parties use the few seats they garner in the national and provincial legislatures. If the rural-urban divide persists, there is potential for a political expression of this tension. The 2019 elections might very well be determined by who manages to build political capital off of the frustrations of the rural population and capture its hope for a better future.

ANC’s use of the liberation movement rhetoric will probably not have such a strong pull on the rural population, so its government will have to invest significantly into rural development to mend its previous failures.

Athambile teaches in Cape Town. She writes for the Mail and Guardian’s Thought Leader, FeministsSA as well as her own blog. She is a PhD candidate at Wits University and she is also a Mandela-Rhodes Scholar.

Follow her on Twitter: @athambile