How the women's vote could make all the difference

08 May 2019 - 06:30
By Paul Berkowitz
More women are expected to vote in Wednesday's election than men.
Image: REUTERS More women are expected to vote in Wednesday's election than men.

The numbers are staggering: in the last general election, nearly 2.5-million more women voted than men.

Voter turnout was significantly higher among women than men in 2014, when 76% of registered women voters came out to cast their ballot compared to 70% of men (10.6-million women verses 8.1-million men).

In fact, just about six out of every 10 votes cast five years ago was cast by a woman.

Numbers from the vast data resources published and held by the Electoral Commission (IEC) show that women make up 51% of potential voters, they make up 55% of the total registered voters. Potential voters are South African citizens over the age of 18, while registered voters refer to those whose names are on the voters' roll.

Women, the IEC data shows, registered to vote at higher rates than men did - across every age group.

This gender balance is also somewhat reflected in that South Africa has the 10th-highest representation of women in government across the globe, with 42.7% of members of parliament being women.

Yet there is strong feeling that women's rights and opportunities aren't taken seriously enough by politicians, except perhaps as a campaigning tool before elections.

Despite being such an important demographic there's precious little targeting by politicians and parties of women. News media have tried to discern where parties stand on issues such as reproductive health and gender-based violence by poring over party manifestos, but many voters feel a disconnect between parties' stated aims and their actions on the ground.

It's true that South Africa has made impressive strides on gender representation in government. As a country, we rank in the top 10 when it comes to the percentage of women who hold political office. We even have a national department that is putatively devoted to the needs of women (and children and people with disabilities). But, again, this representation is increasingly seen as window-dressing in a country with disturbing  levels of gender-based violence, a labour market skewed towards men, and a public health system that fails too many women when it comes to their reproductive health.

In a 2005 study conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council, women stated a desire to see more women in political positions because they felt it would lead to more progress on women’s issues. If a similar study were to be conducted today it’s unlikely that many women would draw a causal link between increased representation of women in politics and an improvement in socio-economic issues that affect women.

But South Africa is not alone when it comes to paying lip service to women’s issues. Over the past year, similar questions have been asked in Brazil and India in the build-up to their national elections. How important is the women's vote? Do women vote on the issues? The list goes on.

There is little evidence that parties and politicians in other countries prioritise the issues affecting women.

We also need to guard against analysing female voters as a monolithic bloc or measuring their choices by party manifestos. We might not have detailed polling information that sorts voters into smaller groups by income or education, but there is research linking the voting choices of some women to socio-economic concerns.

A 2017 study by the Centre for Social Development in Africa (CSDA) found that women were less likely to vote for the ANC than men. A subsequent study in 2018 found that the gender divide had narrowed or disappeared. A possible explanation is that the resignation of Zuma changed women's feelings towards the ANC.

The same study found a weak correlation between female grant recipients and their likelihood of voting for the ANC, with survey responses suggesting that grant recipients were motivated more by fear of losing their grants under another party than by gratitude to the ANC for the national policies that created the grants system.

This evidence of risk-averse behaviour - of valuing the pain of a potential loss more than the pleasure of a potential gain - implies that opposition parties might focus more messaging that allays the fears of voters before it appeals to a brighter tomorrow.

Risk aversion might also contribute to a disconnect between party messaging and voter response: it is harder to imagine a rosier future than it is to picture a murky one.

Reducing any large group of voters to a like-minded cypher can also lead to a seeming disconnect between voter preferences and their choices. It might be, as it was in the 2016 US presidential elections, that other aspects of a voter’s identity will trump her gender in the voting booth. Religious preferences may make the ACDP more appealing to a voter or repel her from the party; racial and ethnic identification could lead to positive or negative feelings about the DA.

As they have in previous elections, women will probably engage more in the 2019 election than men. Finding out what their largest constituency tick is something that most parties will have to prioritise for the next election cycle.