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Today, South Africans will vote for national and provincial assemblies, who in turn will form national and provincial governments. Polls open at 7:00 a.m., and close at 9:00 p.m., though those in line at the closing will be able to vote. South Africans will choose between parties, not candidates, under South Africa’s system of proportional representation. Counting begins immediately, and final results are likely to be released by Saturday, May 11.
The media is focused on the elections as a referendum on the governing African National Congress (ANC) and its reformer leader Cyril Ramaphosa. At the beginning of 2018, he orchestrated the ouster of the scandal-ridden ANC leader and state president, Jacob Zuma. There is particular interest in how the ANC will do in Gauteng. It is the most populous and richest of South Africa’s nine provinces and includes Johannesburg and Pretoria. The media is also focused on the black middle class as the key to the fortunes of the ANC in Gauteng and perhaps the country in general. The official opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA) is also seeking black middle class support, while the third major party, the left-wing radical Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), is pitching to the urban poor.
ANC support in Gauteng has been declining over the past decade. This time, the ANC could be frozen out of the provincial government, or forced to enter into a coalition to form a provincial government. The ANC has long since lost to the DA in the Western Cape—the second wealthiest and most developed province—including in the city of Cape Town. Loss of Gauteng risks the ANC becoming a party with an overwhelmingly rural base.
At election time in South Africa, the media frequently “discovers” a voter demographic and exaggerates its political importance. In the local government elections of 2016 it was the “born frees,” blacks born after the end of apartheid in 1994, whose political behavior was anticipated to be “different.” However, that demographic, like others of that age in most western democracies, failed to vote in large numbers and by and large had little impact on the outcome of the elections. This year it is the “black middle class,” which is “growing.” A story in the New York Times states that blacks are 90 percent of South Africa’s population. However, that number would include Coloureds, identified by outsiders as of mixed race, by some others as “black,” but often by themselves as a separate race. In any event, their electoral behavior is very different from black Africans; Coloureds usually support the opposition DA, while blacks have overwhelmingly supported the ANC. Further, the black middle class is unlikely to be monolithic in its voting preferences.
The Unilever Institute for Strategic Marketing at the University of Cape Town estimates that the size of the black middle class is 5.6 million out of 58 million South Africans, or just under 10 percent of the population. Other estimates are substantially lower, but all such estimates involve definitional issues—what is “middle class” and who is “black,” for example. But, taking the Unilever figure at face value, the “black middle class” is small compared to the black Africans that live in townships and rural areas. It may be large enough to be significant in Johannesburg, though even that can be questioned, but it is unlikely to be so elsewhere in the country.