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6 May 2019
The Myth of the “Coloured Vote” Unpacked

(Published - 6 May 2019)

As a researcher with an interest in elections and voting behaviour, I am regularly asked questions about the importance of “the coloured vote”. Journalists, analysts and campaign strategists tend to attach special significance to this segment of the electorate. Understanding the electorate and targeting campaign messaging appropriately is a normal part of developing a campaign strategy, however, flawed assumptions and an undue preoccupation with “the coloured vote” can lead parties and political leaders into racially inflammatory rhetoric in an attempt to win votes. It can also negatively feed into the choices and actions of political parties.

Indeed, I find this question – asked of me in the run-up to every election that I have been involved in – quite disheartening. I am not in denial of the fact that our lived experiences, information networks, where and how we live our lives as well as our life opportunities are still racialised. Additionally, I am aware that we still need to confront our ongoing prejudices and the ways in which we racialise each other. The reason I find the question disheartening is because it focuses attention on voters and the demographic characteristics of the electorate and deflects attention away from political parties and their behaviour. While individual decision-making processes are critically important, voters are only one part of the electoral equation; political parties and the choices they offer constitute the other.

Electoral trends in the Western Cape stand in sharp contrast to the trends in the rest of South Africa. Outcomes in the Western Cape have resulted in three different political parties assuming power in the province. These were the National Party (NP), the African National Congress (ANC) and the Democratic Alliance (DA). The reason for this provincial alternation in power is said to lie with the coloured majority that resides in the province. While this may be descriptively true, an analysis of electoral trends and political developments over time reveals that parties are primarily responsible for their own gains and losses. National political developments and political parties, through their behaviour and campaigns rather than the nature of the electorate, are responsible for the dramatic political changes in the Western Cape.

In the first democratic election of 1994, the NP won an outright majority in the Western Cape with 53% of the vote to the ANC’s 33%. The 1994 election results in the Western Cape make sense if one considers the underlying fears of voters revealed by opinion polls conducted in the region during the lead up to the election. A provincially representative survey of 2 500 respondents, conducted for the Institute for Multiparty Democracy (IMD) in December 1993, revealed a significant concern with political violence. Overall, 53% of respondents cited political violence as their primary concern and 27% named the ANC as being likely to start violence. The NP did an effective job of capitalising on these fears through a predominantly negative campaign that depicted an ANC victory plunging South Africa into a state of violence and chaos.  At the same time, a reservoir of positive emotions was directed at then-president FW De Klerk for ushering in a new era.

Following the 1999 election, the distribution of power shifted dramatically in the Western Cape. The New National Party (NNP) lost its majority status. Its vote share dropped by 15 percentage points down to 38%. The ANC increased its share of the vote to a plurality of 42%. Despite winning a plurality of the vote, an NNP–Democratic Party (DP) alliance kept the ANC out of power in the Western Cape. The NNP’s Marthinus Van Schalkwyk became the new premier. This political realignment pointed to the idea that explanations of voting patterns in the Western Cape were deficient. The campaign period was far less remarkable than the election of 1994. What then accounted for the dramatic shifts in the Western Cape?

A key factor explaining this quite dramatic shift is that voters in the Western Cape could observe the fact that the dire predictions of the NNP for South Africa under ANC rule had failed to materialise. Instead of descent into chaos, post-1994 South Africa became a beacon of political hope around the world. The Mandela-era ushered in a new constitutional framework. At the same time, a second set of national-level events undermined the credibility of the NNP. In 1996, former President FW De Klerk led the NP out of the Government of National Unity. In 1997, F.W. De Klerk resigned and was replaced by Marthinus Van Schalkwyk. This was accompanied by the steady outpouring of horrific revelations committed by the apartheid government to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Following a short-lived merger attempt with the DP (which saw its name changed to DA), the NNP entered into an alliance with the ANC.

In 2004, the ANC took control of the province. Its support base increased to 45%, just short of an outright majority. In coalition with the NNP, the ANC took control of the provincial government in the Western Cape under the premiership of Ebrahim Rasool. The NNP’s share of the vote crumbled to 11% while the DA increased its support base to 27%. The newly-formed Independent Democrats (ID), under the leadership of Patricia de Lille, obtained 8% of the vote in the Western Cape. The outlandish inconsistencies in NNP rhetoric appear to have finalised the demise of the party. By 2004, the NNP, in coalition with its former arch-enemy the ANC, preached a campaign message that completely contradicted its messages of 1994 and 1999. In its 2004 campaign, the NNP’s primary campaign theme was that they provided a voice for voters via their coalition arrangement with the ANC. The NNP’s campaign message of co-operation with the ANC was completely inconsistent with preceding NP campaigns.

In 2009, the DA took control of the province. With the NNP absorbed into the ANC, the contest was now between the DA and the ANC. The DA received an outright majority, securing 51%. Newcomer Congress of the People (COPE) secured 8% of the vote in the Western Cape, surpassing the ID, which obtained 5% of the 2009 provincial vote.

Again, the 2009 election results in the Western Cape make sense if one considers the dramatic series of events that occurred at a national level between 2004 and 2009. Following the 2004 elections, South Africans had watched as former President Jacob Zuma, then deputy president of the country, faced a lengthy and extensively covered rape trial. This matter was followed by an extensively-covered corruption trial of Schabir Shaik, a close associate of Zuma. Zuma was acquitted of the rape charges while Shaik was found guilty of corruption. In 2005, former President Thabo Mbeki relieved Zuma of his role as deputy president. However, Jacob Zuma was elected as the ANC’s new president, defeating Thabo Mbeki in his bid to remain party president. The culmination of this contestation was the removal of Thabo Mbeki from his role as president. Following Mbeki’s televised resignation, ANC Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe became South Africa’s acting president. These events precipitated the resignation of several ANC members as the Congress of the People was formed under the leadership of Mosiuoa Lekota and Mbhazima Shilowa. Besides the national events outlined above, ANC structures in the Western Cape were struck with their own problems. Additionally, Ebrahim Rasool was removed as the premier of the Western Cape and replaced by Lynne Brown just months prior to the 2009 election.

The ANC’s carefully-planned low-key campaigns of 1999 and 2004, which had successfully allayed the fears of voters in the Western Cape, was now completely undermined. The DA’s messages could be summarised in the slogans of two campaign posters: “Vote to win” and “Stop Zuma”. While the DP’s previous election campaigns had lacked salience, messages around the supremacy of the constitution and challenges posed by ANC dominance to democracy now resonated with voters. ANC members exiting to COPE gave credibility to the DA’s messages. COPE’s critiques of the ANC around constitutionalism and the rule of law resonated with many voters as well and these were the very issues around which the DA had run its 1999, 2004 and 2009 campaigns.

In 2014, the DA increased its majority in the Western Cape, winning 59% of the vote. The ANC maintained its level of support in the Western Cape with 33% of voters casting their ballot for the party compared to 32% in 2009. This consolidation of DA support came primarily at the expense of COPE. COPE received only 0.59% of the provincial vote, causing them to lose their three seats in the legislature. The party had experienced devastating and often public leadership battles between Mbhazima Shilowa and Mosiuoa Lekota. The party spent a significant amount of time in court challenges, culminating in a ruling that declared Mosiuoa Lekota as the legitimate leader of COPE.

In sum, while race and other forms of identity remain salient in the Western Cape, this brief overview highlights a gap in our understanding of the interactions between political developments and voter’s decision-making processes. The results suggest that national political developments are a crucial influence on voter perceptions. Furthermore, it appears that party behaviour, campaign messages and what happens between elections are important to voters. One would hope that questions such as “How do we make inroads into the coloured vote?” and “How do we retain coloured support?” can become a thing of the past. Instead of reverting to the default explanation that voters vote on the basis of identity, parties need to start taking responsibility for their behaviour rather than blaming voters for their misfortunes. Of course, there is very little incentive for them to do so.

*Professor Cherrel Africa is an Associate Professor from the Department of Political Studies at the University of the Western Cape.