LISTEN | The psychology behind loyalist voting

A senior social psychology lecturer at Unisa explains why people remain attached to political groups despite discontent and poor performance

10 November 2021 - 07:00
Disgruntled voters sent politicians a clear message.
Disgruntled voters sent politicians a clear message.
Image: Jeff Rankin

Last Monday South Africans voted in the local government elections.

The ANC only managed to garner below 50% of the votes in these elections for the first time since coming into power 27 years ago.

South Africans have been expressing their discontent with the ANC in different ways, some through protests and others on social media, in surveys and at the ballot box.. Among their grievances are service delivery, unemployment, crime, poverty and  corruption allegations against government officials.

Despite being unhappy with how the party conducts itself, for some in SA, the ANC remains their party of choice.

The ANC voter share in local municipality elections has significantly decreased in all the provinces — comparing the 2016 and 2021 local government elections as on the IEC Results Dashboard. The two most impoverished provinces in the country, Limpopo and the Eastern Cape, had the smallest drop of all the provinces.

Dr Mbali Dhlomo-Sibiya, a senior social psychology lecturer at Unisa, said loyalty to a political group can be explained in psychology.

Here’s Dhlomo-Sibiya’s perspective on loyalty to groups:

She based her arguments on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. 

Physiological needs 

“This is the most basic need such as for food, water, shelter and clothing. You find some people are voting because a political party gave them food or promises to build houses. When political parties talk like that, they are appealing to the people who are at that level of need.”

Higher needs

“Belonging, self-esteem and self-actualisation are higher needs. Some people will maintain their membership because of the sense of belonging they get. For others being part of a party raises their self-esteem.

“There could be fear. This is a party that was highly recognised for bringing in democracy and the liberation of black people, so you keep hoping maybe a new leader will do things differently.”

She categorised political supporters into two groups, namely those who belong to a political party and those who are free agents. Those who belong to political parties are already in the bag and are certain about which party they will vote for. Free agents are those who must be persuaded through improved performance (service delivery, employment and so on) just before elections, with the intention that they will remember these good actions at the polls.