Future in the balance – by David Everatt and Ross Jennings

The ANC’s elective conference will be a crucial decider for 2019 voters, write David Everatt and Ross Jennings.

As ANC branch members meet to nominate new leadership for the party’s upcoming December elective conference, they should be thinking about the effect that their choices will have on the party’s fortunes in the 2019 national elections. The ANC received 54% of the votes cast in the 2016 municipal polls and cannot afford a further decline in support.

New research in the public domain suggests that the party’s choice of presidential candidate is likely to have a direct influence on whether the ANC can keep its head above the 50% mark.

Cape Town-based research agency Citizen Surveys recently released its quarterly 3 900 sample survey, the SA Citizens’ Survey. The survey does not ask respondents which party they intend voting for, giving an interestingly rounded view of the candidates.

Regarding some questions, the results are emphatic. On the issue of who should be the next leader of the ANC, for instance, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa is streets ahead of all his rivals in the views of respondents (who may be voters of any party) – with 43% approving of him as the next leader of the ANC, compared with 16% for ANC MP Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, 5% for Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu and 4% for ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe.

No other candidate featured, suggesting they were not being mentioned by a statistically significant number of respondents as late as early October 2017.

If we look only at black respondents who intend to vote in 2019, Ramaphosa stands at 46%, Dlamini-Zuma manages 20% and the rest remain unchanged.

Some people have argued that Ramaphosa is too urban and too sophisticated, with Dlamini-Zuma appealing more to rural voters. Not true, says the survey: while Ramaphosa enjoys 48% of support among metropolitan Africans who intend to vote, dipping slightly to 45% among rural respondents, Dlamini-Zuma’s figures barely shift – 20% in metropolitan areas, 21% in rural areas.

And while much is being spoken of the power of the so-called Premier League – the provincial heads supporting President Jacob Zuma – as well as other provincial leaders and who they will back, the voters may not see the world in the same way as their provincial bosses. Staying with black voters who intend to vote, Ramaphosa is the dominant favourite in every province except KwaZulu-Natal. He scores 67% in Limpopo, more than 50% in the Free State and Eastern Cape, 50% in the North West, and 49% in Gauteng.

Dlamini-Zuma peaks at a modest 43% in KwaZulu-Natal (where Ramaphosa performs worst, at 24%), but after 20% in Mpumalanga, her support across the provinces is consistently below the 20% mark – dropping to 10% in the North West and 8% in Limpopo.

Most shocking among the findings is what we term “the repellent factor” – the extent to which a possible leader may actively dissuade voters from voting for the ANC.

It is normal for an ANC leader to poll lower than the ANC – that has been the case since former president Nelson Mandela. And we are analysing the responses without knowing the party affiliation of respondents.

But the ANC has never faced a situation in a general election – as it does now – where a potential leader will drive voters away. We have seen the dramatically negative effect of Zuma on the ANC’s performance in the 2016 local election.

Sadly for Dlamini-Zuma, the survey suggests she has precisely that effect, too.

Asked if Ramaphosa or Dlamini-Zuma as ANC president would make respondents more or less likely to vote for the ANC, 69% of potential black voters in 2019 said Ramaphosa as leader would make them “much more likely” or “somewhat more likely” to vote ANC; 51% said the same of Dlamini-Zuma.

So far, not too bad. However, it is the repellent factor that the ANC has to worry about.

At the other end of the scale, 17% said Ramaphosa as leader would make them “much less likely” or “somewhat less likely” to vote ANC. This increases to a remarkable 32% of potential black voters in 2019 who said they would be “much” or “somewhat” less likely to vote ANC if Dlamini-Zuma were elected leader. That is one in three African voters saying Dlamini-Zuma as ANC leader would negatively influence their intention to vote ANC.

While the survey does not probe respondents about the reasons for their choices, the average rating of ANC leaders that Citizen Surveys polls monthly may provide some clue to the relative unpopularity of Dlamini-Zuma. Over the past year, changes in Dlamini-Zuma’s rating have tended to track those of the president – although her rating has remained consistently above his over the past two years.

Given the level of public dissatisfaction with the ANC, the party will have a genuine fight on its hands simply to emerge as the majority party in 2019 – and even then, may lose some provinces.

This data suggests that the ANC’s choice of leader is likely to play a decisive role in determining whether the ANC wins that fight.

Whatever happens, the outcome of the leadership race in December will give the clearest indication yet of the extent to which ANC conference delegates are in touch with the mood and preferences of the voting public.

Put another way, will the ANC conference elect the next president of South Africa or the next leader of the opposition?

Professor Everatt is head of the Wits School of Governance and Jennings is a doctoral student

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