ANALYSIS | How low voter turnout hurt the ANC - and could hurt again in two years' time

23 May 2019 - 06:00 By Paul Berkowitz
Low voter turnout in the May 8 general election has hit the ruling ANC particularly hard.
Low voter turnout in the May 8 general election has hit the ruling ANC particularly hard.
Image: REUTERS

Urban or rural, city or township, it didn’t matter: the country’s voters simply didn’t turn up on May 8 – and the ANC suffered for it.

Turnout for the 2019 election fell more than seven percentage points, from over 73% in 2014 to under 66%, meaning fewer voters turned up at the polls compared to the previous election. This hasn’t happened since the 1999 election.

While there are many factors contributing to this poor showing by voters, the overriding theme is one of voter apathy and disillusionment.

Figures from the election show that the decline in turnout rates over the last five years was apparent in almost every ward, urban or rural. This reinforces the long-term nature of declining turnouts and refutes most of the other possible reasons given for lower turnout, such as bad weather, inaccessible voting stations and internal migration from one province to another.

The interactive map below shows the turnout rate for the 2019 national vote. It is possible to zoom in and click on any ward to find its turnout rate.

A few trends are highlighted by this map and a comparison with turnouts in previous national and provincial elections.

Not only do the trends show that the decline was apparent in almost every ward; they also show a clear urban/rural bias in turnout numbers. Essentially, turnout rates in urban wards are higher than in rural wards, which are typically larger, more sparsely populated and lacking good transport infrastructure.

Zooming in on the eight metros confirms this: only a handful of wards in each metro had a below-average turnout. Those few wards support the hypothesis that lower turnout is primarily driven by voter dissatisfaction. For example, there are 130 wards in the Joburg metro. Maybe one in 10 wards had very low turnout numbers, but these wards are clustered around two particular areas: Diepsloot in the north and Berea and Hillbrow in central Johannesburg.

Another trend shows that many of the areas with low turnout rates have maintained this dubious record over three elections - such as most rural wards in the North West bordering Botswana and large parts of Limpopo, particularly the Capricorn, Sekhukhune, and Mopani districts. In the 2009, 2014, and 2019 elections, turnout was particularly low in these areas.

In addition, voter turnout was low in 2019 in the eastern corner of the Eastern Cape bordering KwaZulu-Natal and the northern half of KZN.

Basically, the overall effect is that the ANC is the party most affected by declining turnouts. Its share of the vote in Limpopo and the North West has fallen substantially since the 2004 election, by 14% in Limpopo and by 19% in the North West, as shown by the graphic below.

The ANC lost massive chunks of the provincial vote in both Limpopo and the North West.
The ANC lost massive chunks of the provincial vote in both Limpopo and the North West.
Image: Paul Berkowitz

The ANC’s overtures to rural voters during the Zuma years were never going to yield long-term success given South Africa’s increasing urbanisation and our electoral system of proportional representation.

In 2016 the population of the eight metros accounted for 40% of the national total and this share has grown since then – a share that is more likely to vote by five to ten percentage points, compared with the wards at the bottom of the log.

The ubiquity of the lower turnout makes it more difficult to track the flow of voters between political parties, particularly between the ANC and the DA in Gauteng. Both parties won fewer votes across most of the province’s wards.

The geographically specific nature of the turnout could have a much greater effect on the 2021 municipal election.

In the 2016 municipal elections, for the first time ever, the ANC lost municipalities in the Free State, Limpopo and the North West. The party could face further losses in 2021.

Lower turnout in northern KZN might also threaten the IFP’s recovery and prolong instability in municipal councils across the region.


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