New research completed by The Centre for Social Development in Africa (CSDA) at the University of Johannesburg, finds that trust in the Presidency emerges as the single most important predictor of voter behaviour in the 2019 elections.

The leadership changes in the governing party and in the government appear to have bolstered trust in the president and are a significant predictor of voting behaviour. For each unit of trust in the presidency (on a five-point scale), the chances of preferring the ANC over an opposition party increased by 59%. This means that for those who strongly distrust in the presidency of President Zuma and those who strongly trust in the presidency of Cyril Ramaphosa, there is a ten-fold likelihood of choosing the ANC over an opposition party.

To understand what the influence of the Presidency of Cyril Ramaphosa is likely to be in the upcoming elections, we compared the current findings of our 2018 survey results with that of our 2017 survey under the Presidency of Jacob Zuma. At that time, trust in the presidency under Jacob Zuma was at an all-time low of 26% compared to 55% for Ramaphosa currently.

To understand the shift in support for the ANC versus the opposition parties, the CSDA constructed two models for analysis, to control for the change in leadership. When Ramaphosa is removed from the comparison, governance or trust in institutions such as parliament, the courts, SASSA among others, is no longer a predictor of voter preference. However, when inserted as a factor on its own and independent of trust in institutions, trust in the presidency emerged as the single most important predictor of voter preference for the governing party in the upcoming elections. In fact, trust in the Ramaphosa Presidency climbed by 29 percentage points since he succeeded Zuma. Various polls predict that the ANC is likely to comfortably win the next election.

In our survey in 2017 which was conducted at the height of the leadership contestation in the ANC, party loyalty was not a predictor of voter choice. However, it emerged as a predictor in the 2018 survey. Given this, it appears that trust in President Ramaphosa may have rekindled loyalty to the party that brought freedom and democracy to South Africa.

How do we account for these changes in voter preferences in the upcoming elections at a time of growing economic insecurity, daily exposure of corruption of political office bearers, loss of trust in institutions and poor government performance in service delivery?

Given this scenario, the findings are counterintuitive or contrary to what one might expect given the social, economic and political instability in the country.

The reasons for voter choices in this election appear to be more nuanced and complex as citizens are struggling to make difficult choices. On the one hand, trust in the presidency is a predictor of preference for the ANC while on the other hand, other factors such as corruption matters in voter choices.

72% of all respondents thought that corruption had increased in the past year. It is likely that trust in Cyril Ramaphosa’s leadership may be based on the respondents’ favourable perceptions of his personal attributes as a leader such as his personal integrity, his knowledge and skills and experience. The establishment of commissions of enquiry to investigate corruption might also have worked in his favour. For some voters, these factors may trump their concerns about corruption.

We also see that women voters who were previously more likely to vote for the opposition, have shifted their support away from the opposition and back to the ANC, which enjoyed support of the women’s vote since 1994. Fear of loss of social grants if a person voted for another party is also highly significant in voter choices of the governing party and speaks largely to securing personal, family and material well-being. These are some of the reasons that may explain the shifts that emerged from the survey.

The election is however taking place at a particular political moment in the country’s democracy after almost a decade of wrongdoing and maladministration of the Zuma years. The survey results present a nuanced picture and complicated decision making where potential voters are weighing up the issues and making conscious choices of who to vote for based on these judgements. Despite these constraints, the shifts in voter opinions and choices reported on in our study may suggest some hope that the ANC under new leadership can forge a path out of the country’s current quagmire. Should the presidency and the ANC win the election, the next question is, can he meet the expectations and rebuild public trust and confidence in government, the economy and democracy?

About the study: This is a nationally representative sample of 3431 respondents. It is the second of a three-part study to understand the links between socio-economic rights and what drives voter choices in the coming elections.