Opposition partisanship is on the rise indicating a shift in politics in South Africa, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies said on Thursday.
"People begin to move across parties. Voters are looking beyond images to performance," said Collette Schulz-Herzenberg, who was addressing a Cape Town seminar on the 2011 local government elections.
She said the increase in voter turnout for opposition parties was a major blow for the ruling African National Congress (ANC) as it suppressed the vote share for the ANC.
She said the ANC had lost support in all provinces besides KwaZulu-Natal. There were significant losses in the Eastern Cape and the Western Cape.
"As a party, overall vote share would have been lower had it not been for KZN."
She said it was not clear whether the ANC had lost votes due to loss of actual support or because of higher voter turnout for opposition parties.
She said the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) had doubled its vote count since the 2006 election and that this marked the beginning of a shift.
"There has been a rise from 2004 in opposition partisanship."
The DA had gone from being an ambiguous party to an inclusive party. There was a lot less uncertainty. More people now knew what the DA stood for and this could have played a role in an increased voter turnout for the party.
Another trend researchers had picked up was that South Africans went to the polls despite claims of dissatisfaction with the government and low levels of trust in political parties.
Shulz-Herzenberg said that 58% of registered voters cast their ballots on May 18. This was an increase of 10% from the two previous local government elections.
"Turnout increased across all provinces in South Africa," she said.
According to her research, this was despite low levels of trust and disillusionment among the electorate.
South Africans had indicated, in several surveys, that they did not trust political parties or politicians.
Schulz-Herzenberg said disillusionment had been used as a "convincing" reason for low turnout.
"Many people thought that voters would stay away to punish the incumbent. Even the IEC [Independent Electoral Commission] were tentative about it.
"Yet, there was a 10% increase. We can't say why. Perhaps service delivery protests energised voters. Turnout in communities where there were seriously violent protests was high."
In Ficksburg, there was a 50% poll, compared to 45.5% in 2006.
In Ermelo, 56.89% of voters cast their ballots this year, compared to 48% in 2006.
"This sets you a range of questions you can't easily answer. Very strong campaigns could be the reason for higher turnout. Strong campaigns raised interest in this election. Ipsos Markinor found that the intention to participate in this election was high – at 80%," she said.
Another factor that could have played a role in the higher voter turnout was that opposition supporters had become highly "re-energised".
A researcher at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, Kate Lefko-Everett, said her research also indicated that trust in local government and political parties was low and had remained relatively the same since 2006.
Only about 46% of South Africans indicated that they had faith in local government, while 40% indicated that they had trust in political parties.
She said people had indicated that political leadership was unresponsive to citizens.
"Almost half of all South Africans think that if leadership is not interested there's really no way of getting them [leadership] to listen."
She said the same people felt that their vote could make a difference.
"This despite their trust being low."
Shulz-Herzenberg said there were no concrete reasons for this shift.