Mapping correlation between votes and protests

With the election results now declared it is pertinent to ask whether some of the results might have been predicted by protest activity as a proxy for dissatisfaction with the ruling party. An overview of the provincial ballot results and service delivery protest trends shows up mixed results although at a more micro level a sample of recent protest sites suggests the emergence of several trends.

Looking at provincial results gains by the Democratic Alliance (DA) and Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in Gauteng and by the EFF in the North West and Mpumalanga were arguably foretold by protest activity in these provinces but the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) victory in the Eastern Cape and Limpopo and DA gains in the Northern Cape do not correlate with proportional protest activity over the past 10 years 16 months or even 12 months.

In statistical terms there are correlations between proportional changes in the ANC’s provincial support and provincial protest representation over the past decade and this year — in other words ANC losses are somewhat mirrored in protest activity.

However Western Cape protests did not manifest in censure of the DA and gains by the EFF in Limpopo were not predictable from protest activity. Further DA gains were not suggested by the limited number of Northern Cape protests but the violent and profound nature of relatively few protests most likely had a profound effect.

There are several reasons elections do not (necessarily) reflect protest activity. First and most important elections and protests are not seen by communities as an either/or form of engagement — elections give the mandate for governance but this can coexist with protest activity as a form of ensuring accountability.

Second communities differentiate between state entities and parties. While communities may protest against delivery of water by a particular municipality or the attitude of a councillor the accountability of this is not necessarily translated to that of a political party. If this is the case local government elections may well display electoral censure that is more sensitive to protest dynamics.

Third the relationship between the ANC and much of South Africa’s electorate is one of deep loyalty. Nonetheless ANC-supporting communities will no longer unconditionally support the party beyond the ballot box and disillusion with the ruling party may be evident in protest activity.

Looking at a sample of recent protests there are two distinct patterns. First voter turnout tends to be compromised in protest-ridden communities but to varying degrees. Second the ruling party tends to retain power in these communities but with a lower margin (except in the instances of clear election boycotts). And third opposition parties especially the EFF appear to be gaining ground in areas where there is protest action.

In a number of cases especially in Limpopo as well as the North West and the Eastern Cape an apparent election boycott was evident with poor voter turnout. But in other protest-ridden communities such as Zandspruit in Johannesburg Ekangala in Bronkhorstspruit some of the voting districts in Bekkersdal and Brits’s Mothutlung and Damonsville voter turnout was relatively strong.

In these latter voting districts while the ANC won majorities on the national ballot it also tended to suffer significant erosion in its proportional support. Opposition parties especially the EFF but also the DA in some cases appear to have gained from lost ANC votes. While much has been made of the Bekkersdal victory by the ANC the party’s support slipped by 6.8% 11% and 8% in three voting districts while the EFF gained 8.1% 5.5% and 6.6% and the DA 3.3% 9.4% and 6.6%. More dramatically in Johannesburg’s Zandspruit the ANC’s proportional losses of 17.9% and 18.5% contrasted against the EFF’s gains of 22.1% and 10.1%.

In many ways the voting patterns of protest communities reflect those of all of South Africa — while the ANC has retained an unequivocal majority it can expect to be put under pressure by a more robust and significant opposition. What is also apparent is that a significant minority opted to change their political allegiance even in ANC strongholds. This is cause for concern for the ANC and demands that the new government urgently attend to the needs of protesting and other vulnerable communities.