July 8, 2020
Written by WID.world

Political Cleavages in South Africa

Extreme Inequality and the Structure of Political Cleavages in South Africa, 1994-2019

In this paper, Amory Gethin draws on political attitudes surveys to study the interplay of social inequalities and racial cleavages in South Africa since 1994. He analyzes the link between voting behaviors and the main socioeconomic characteristics of voters, in particular income, education level, wealth, race, and their interactions. The paper documents extreme socioeconomic political divides, which are strongly explained by South Africa’s exceptional racial inequalities. The shift of the new Black middle class towards opposition parties has driven the gradual decline of the dominant African National Congress since 1994. Growing abstention among the youth and the lower-educated has further eroded support for the ANC. The paper also puts South Africa in comparative perspective, focusing on how the transformation of dominant-party systems plays a role in crystallizing new sociopolitical identities.

Key results

  • Racial affiliation remains the main determinant of electoral behaviors in South Africa since the first election of 1994. More than 70% of Blacks support the ruling party, the African National Congress, compared to less than 10% of Whites.
  • The persistence of strong racial inequalities has implied huge gaps in vote choice between voters belonging to different income groups. In 2019, more than 75% of the poorest 20% voters supported the ANC. In comparison, 20% of top 10% earners supported the ANC. South Africa shows the highest income polarization ever observed in a democracy.
  • Class cleavages in South Africa are not only structured by race. The new Black middle class, which benefited from the decline of racial inequalities since the end of apartheid, has increasingly voted for opposition parties.
  • South Africans have become growingly disillusioned with democratic politics. The turnout’s decline has been stronger among blacks and among the less-educated.

>> Click here to download the paper

Figure – Political cleavages in South Africa

The figure below shows the share of votes received by the African National Congress among population groups. The ANC has received more than 80% of votes among African voters, as compared to less than 10% of White votes in all years.

SouthAfrica-vote-ANC-population-group_World Inequality Lab


Amory Gethin (Paris School of Economics ; World Inequality Lab): amory.gethin@psemail.eu

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