Are we reading too much into DA's recent Cape wins?

However depressing a reality stereotypical racial voting trends have proved as difficult to change as the racial make-up of SA’s communities. Nowhere is this more apparent than in local elections. Until now that is.





In what is being heralded in the press as one of the most significant watersheds in local politics two by-elections in the Western Cape were said to have changed this forever but have they really?





In by-elections last month the Democratic Alliance (DA) won two previously African National Congress (ANC)-controlled wards Ward 44 in the City of Cape Town which includes some areas of the township of Gugulethu and Ward 12 in Theewaterskloof.



The media reported heavily on the issue because “there were no white voters” and most voters were “blacks not coloureds” — which is only partly true — creating the impression that the DA has gained significant support in African townships such as Gugulethu which are traditionally the bedrock of ANC support in the Western Cape. But reporting on the issue has been superficial and has created a misleading impression projecting too dramatic a trend.





Ward 44 of Cape Town is made up of seven voting districts two of which are in Gugulethu and contain mostly African voters but five of which are in Vanguard Estate Heideveld and Welcome Estate which contain mostly coloured voters. Indeed the ward is not predominantly African as has been suggested but according to somewhat outdated Statistics SA data is in fact about 60% coloured and 40% African.



While the DA won more than 90% of votes in the five predominantly coloured districts of the ward the ANC still won 94% and 98% of the vote in the two voting districts in Gugulethu. Voters from the coloured areas voted for the DA and voters from the African areas voted for the ANC.





Nonetheless when comparing results between 2006 and 2010 it is clear that the DA has increased its proportion of votes in the five coloured districts quite dramatically; from 55% or less in 2006 to 90% or more.





While the DA has picked up some votes from the ANC between 2006 and 2010 most of its new votes are other non-ANC votes. Indeed it is clear that the DA has consolidated the non-ANC vote.





It is also important to assess the total number of votes cast in the seven voting districts. In the five coloured voting districts which favoured the DA there was a significant increase in voting — by at least 20% in all cases and in one case rising by 149%. But in the two voting districts in Gugulethu voting dropped by 35% and 25%.



If one considers that in 2006 voters from the two districts in Gugulethu made up almost 58% of total votes cast in Ward 44 and that this fell to 36% in 2010 the real reason why the DA won the by-election may simply be that ANC voters in Gugulethu stayed away from the polls.





The issue for the ANC is whether poor mobilisation of voters is to blame as suggested locally by the party or growing disenchantment especially with factionalism rife in the province compounded by recent unruly ANC Youth League behaviour.





Turning to the by-election in Ward 12 of Theewaterskloof DA leader Helen Zille argued that “Grabouw is the first ward the DA has ever won where there is a majority of black (African) voters”. But it is not clear that Africans are in the majority in Ward 12 or more to the point that the split between African and coloured voters in the recent by- election in the ward showed a shift of African voters to the DA.



There is unfortunately no accurate data available to assess the racial breakdown of the population of the ward although 2007 Community Survey data shows that 72% of the entire Theewaterskloof municipality’s population is coloured while 19% are African.





But the most compelling evidence that the DA did not run away with the African vote lies in the result itself. While the ANC won 45% of the vote (down from 77%) the DA is only slightly ahead at 48% (up from 96%).



Indeed the ANC still managed to get most of the votes in half of the voting districts so support for the two parties is pretty evenly balanced. And while one may rightly conclude that the ANC has lost significant support in the Theewaterskloof ward it is not clear what proportion of the African vote has been picked up by the DA.



It is more likely that given the balance between the ANC and DA in the ward as in other parts of the Western Cape the DA has consolidated coloured and non-ANC votes as well as a significant proportion — although not the majority — of African voters.



One should also consider why the ANC is doing so badly in ward by-elections in the province that it previously dominated.



In the case of Ward 12 consider why this by-election was necessary — the previous (ANC) councillor of Ward 12 was removed for missing five successive council meetings without explanation. Small wonder the ANC lost so much support.





In fact it is clear from the results of by- elections held in the Western Cape since the last municipal elections in March 2006 that local voters in the province are deserting the ANC in droves. In the 75 ward by-elections held in the Western Cape since March 2006 the ANC lost 32 wards — 42% of the total.



Of these 15 wards were lost to the DA and another 11 to independents. Before by-elections the ANC controlled 50% of the 75 contested wards; after by-elections it controlled only 8%. The DA on the other hand now controls 42 (56%) of the 75 wards — up from 28 (37%) in 2006.





But a national perspective is also important here. There have been 454 ward by- elections across the country since the March 2006 local government elections with the ANC holding 316 of these wards (or 70%) before by-elections and losing 38 wards after by-elections (32 of these in the Western Cape) while the DA held 64 (14%) before by- elections and boosted this to 84 (18%) most of these in the Western Cape.





Has the landscape of municipal elections changed forever? The data suggests that while the DA has significantly increased its voters in the recently contested Western Cape wards there may well be a racial dimension to this — a factor that has not been apparent in by-elections in the rest of SA.





In essence the DA has consolidated its votes among Western Cape coloured voters but not necessarily among African voters. In fact the DA although doing well nationally and increasing its proportion of total votes in by-elections by 4% is nowhere near to emulating the dramatic result it has achieved in the Western Cape where it has increased its tally of wards in by-elections by 50%.





So while the two recent Western Cape by- elections may not be a watershed in local government it is clear that the DA is steadily consolidating and growing the opposition.





ANC complacency in assuming that it “owns” any votes would be a grave risk indeed especially considering evidence of low voter turnout among its core in places such as Gugulethu. While these votes might not necessarily be lost to an opposition party they may simply whither away to apathy.