A theme of commentary on South Africa’s May 8 elections is that many voters will be motivated by anger at corruption and growing economic and social inequality, particularly the continuing poverty of the black majority. Commentators are also noting the low levels of voter registration among young people. There is speculation that such factors will lead to an erosion of support for the African National Congress (ANC), which has governed South Africa since the transition to “non-racial” democracy in 1994. At present, it is anticipated that the principal beneficiary of a decline in ANC support will be the radical Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and, less likely, the formal opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA). While polling shows that President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is the ANC party leader, is much more popular than the EFF’s Julius Malema or the DA’s Mmusi Maimane, under South Africa’s system of proportional representation, voters vote for a party, not an individual.
In the run-up to the elections, the BBC has done a service by presenting statistical data on how South Africa has changed since 1994. The data is drawn from Stats SA, the official statistics office, and think tanks. South African statistics, official and non-official, are credible. The BBC’s selection of statistics shows greater social progress since the end of apartheid than the current political debate would indicate, but that poverty remains mostly black and coloured. (Coloureds often regard themselves as a separate race, not of mixed race.)
Between 2006 and 2015, poverty declined across all races. For blacks, it declined from 76.8 percent to 64.2 percent; for coloureds, from 56.1 percent to 41.3 percent; for Indians/Asians, from 20.9 percent to 5.9 percent, and for whites from 1.4 percent to 1 percent. It is worth noting that much of this progress was achieved between 2006 and 2011, at which point the declines stalled or even reversed. Hence, for some, progress has not been seen or felt for eight years.
Other data also shows some improvement. For example, in 1996, 58.2 percent of households had access to electricity and 60.8 percent had access to piped water; in 2016 it was 90.3 percent and 83.5 percent, respectively.
Despite improvement since the end of apartheid, poverty and unemployment remain high. It can be politically dangerous for a government in power when a positive trajectory is interrupted, as poverty reduction among Blacks and Coloureds has been. South Africa’s rate of economic growth has also been low. The country has recovered only slowly from the global recession of 2008, and the prices of some South African export commodities have fallen. Further, the poor governance and bad economic policies of the 2009–2018 administration of President Zuma undermined domestic and foreign investment necessary for growth. All of that said, voting behavior is still largely determined by race, and the ANC has been the political party of blacks, and is institutionally robust. It may not perform as badly as the pundits predict on May 8.