Cronje: Voters say DA’s W Cape template shining ever brighter; Great AGOA news

In this in-depth interview, Dr. Frans Cronje of the Social Research Foundation offers detailed insights into political dynamics across South Africa’s provinces with particular emphasis on the Western Cape where the SRF has just concluded in-depth research. Cronje examines shifting voter sentiments in the DA-run province, concluding that newcomers Action SA and the Patriotic Alliance are attacking the wrong target – they would do better by focusing on former ANC voters whose support in the Western Cape is down from a recent 30% to just 10%. Cronje, currently engaging with movers and shakers in Washington also shares excellent news on AGOA and the US’s renewed interest in Africa after realising the gains made on the continent by Russia and China. – Alec Hogg

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Relevant timestamps from the interview

  • 00:00 – Introductions
  • 00:57 – Dr Frans Cronje on his visit to Washington DC
  • 06:46 – Cronje on the importance of renewing AGOA
  • 11:07 – On the Social Research Foundation’s latest report
  • 17:00 – On the Patriotic Alliance
  • 18:25 – On the recent Western Cape by-elections
  • 22:02 – On the lack of black leaders in the DA
  • 25:06 – Concludes

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Edited transcript of the interview

Alec Hogg: Dr. Frans Cronje is with the Social Research Foundation and the latest research to come out of the foundation is fascinating for people who live or immigrated to the Western Cape. Always nice to be checking in with you, Frans. Usually, you are somewhere to the north of where I live, but now you are far north in Washington, DC. Are you there to observe what’s happening with the AGOA story, which is clearly crucial for South Africa – which needs it to be renewed?

Frans Cronje: Indeed, in part. South Africa has been a bit in the news recently regarding its global relationships. There’s considerable interest here in D.C. about where that’s headed. So, it’s been a useful time to be around to answer some of those questions.

Alec Hogg: We often perceive that South Africa is completely forgotten about nowadays. But, from what you’ve just said, that’s not really the case.

Frans Cronje: No, it’s definitely made its presence felt here. Understandably, in America, only a small circuit focuses on Africa, and within that, South Africa is an even smaller part. There’s a lot of really positive sentiment on Africa, particularly parts of East Africa, here in the U.S. However, interest in South Africa has indeed tailed off over the last 15 years.

For serious policy think tank people, South Africa is not a focus area. But recent events, such as South Africa’s place in the world, the event around the Lady R ship, and South Africa’s naval exercises off the East Coast with China and Russia, have certainly put it back on the map here for some people.

Also, not to overstate it, but there’s a growing appreciation too, of Africa’s broader geo-strategic importance. One emerging issue here is the command of six ocean channels that provide access to the South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean Rim.

If you control the bulk of those, you can influence the passage of naval and commercial shipping around much of the world. In fact, if done well, you can command the flow of everything westwards of Indonesia, including everything around India, the Persian Gulf, the access to Suez and the Mediterranean.

All shipping traveling westwards to North America and Europe. And Africa commands three of those access points. Some strategic thinkers here are considering this. The US and Western world have been on the back foot on the continent. Russia is doing spectacularly well, having pushed the French out of West Africa.

Its influence in Syria and Libya means Russian aircraft can just fly over the Mediterranean and reach Southern Europe. China’s done extremely well too, with its naval facility at Djibouti, moving down Africa’s East Coast, thinking about new facilities off the African West Coast.

If China manages to establish a naval facility somewhere like the port at Bata in Equatorial Guinea, the Chinese Navy would be closer to New York than if it had a base in Hawaii. Then there’s the matter of the South American coast, where China is backing Argentina’s claim to the Falkland Islands. Last time that was an issue, Mrs. Thatcher sent the largest battle group assembled since the end of the Second World War. Now, Britain’s not likely to do that again.

So, Africa, sitting in the middle of this kind of diplomatic and geo-strategic wrangling, is attracting more attention here than was previously the case.

Alec Hogg: Who do you see when you visit Washington?

Frans Cronje: We interact with various think tanks, policy people and others who are thinking about the continent.

Alec Hogg: So, you get plugged into those who are themselves plugged into what’s happening at the centre of power.

Frans Cronje: Yes, it’s beneficial to try and get a sense. It’s very intriguing too. One of the issues, certainly in the South African press, is the question of AGOA and its renewal. Now, maybe I’m wrong, but my judgment for you, I’d say with confidence, is that we’re good on AGOA. Possibly we might even see an early renewal of AGOA this year.

I believe the administration here is firmly committed to the AGOA agreement, and I think South Africa is going to be okay on that, which is positive from the South African perspective. There’s a lot of goodwill from the United States towards South Africa. The AGOA agreement is quite generous. We often run a trade surplus with the United States. There’s great concern, of course, about the way things are progressing.

Horrible headlines, power outages, the upheavals in KZN, which were about 18 months ago. There’s some real concern about the extent to which South Africa is being pulled out of the Western orbit. But the goodwill is very much there. My call for you, if I’m wrong, you can buy a bottle of wine or something, is I think the AGOA renewal is intact. And I think it could happen sooner than we realise.

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Alec Hogg: Those riots, in KZN were actually two years ago this month. Time flies…. Let’s just dwell a little bit on AGOA, if you would. Why is it so important that it is renewed?

Frans Cronje: Well, from a Western perspective, it’s a lot of strategic leverage that the Western world exercises over Southern Africa. Russia’s Africa strategy is effective – it’s low budget, high impact, providing security. Russia’s very good at finding crunch points. Operating an aircraft out of Libya gives you enormous influence. So, low cost, high influence.

China’s Africa strategy is successful as well. Africa is now the largest external consumer of Chinese construction expertise, which means China is building the data networks that will carry the information that will form the political opinions of the people who will determine the leaders of the countries that collectively deliver more than 50 votes at the UN.

Then there are all the traditional security concerns. The Abraham Accords were an absolute magnificent success for US foreign policy, creating a real prospect of a degree of peace in the Middle East. But that displaces extremism into Africa.

Africa is also key in addressing the global protein crisis, as the continent’s commercial farming is basically at zero. In addition, Africa is now home to more cities of over a million people than Europe and North America combined, making it the world’s last great untapped consumer market in an era of anticipated global slowdown.

Furthermore, the command of the sea channels can determine the ultimate balance of power between West and East in the rivalry that will dominate foreign affairs for the next 20 or 30 years, between China and the Western world. Now, given the extent of Russian and Chinese influence and their smart Africa policies, the Western world is behind the curve. And if you, in a fit of peak about some of South Africa’s associations, cut that off, you lose out strategically, and it’s going to be very difficult to get back in.

Alec Hogg: So, South Africa’s non-aligned policy or playing both sides, which is something Cyril Ramaphosa is pretty good at, it seems, may actually work out. Just coming home or closer to home here, the latest report from the Social Research Foundation, the research on how is the country doing, can you walk us through who you spoke to and the difference between the perception of how the country is doing from the Western Cape perspective.

Frans Cronje: Okay, as you know, Social Research Foundation is a small policy group, does a lot of opinion work and its most recent efforts there focused on the Western Cape, wanted to determine, we’re trying to determine in great detail, opinion in the key swing provinces. So Gauteng is one, we’ve done a bit of work there already. Western Cape was a bit of a blank slate.

So we’ve just done that and the next project is KZN. We want to see how the IFP ANC balance is playing out. And that’s really important because the ANC will lose all those provinces, the Gauteng, KZN and the Western Cape. That’s assured now. The extent by which it loses determines the kind of national coalition deals it could later make. I think it holds the country perhaps still at 50 percent, but 10 years down the line it won’t do that either. And these provinces are really important.

So we went into the Western Cape on a few things. On the raw data, the DA polls about 50 percent, which they’ll be happy about. On the national ballot, when you vote, you vote on the national and provincial ballot. When you adjust for turn up, the DA goes into the mid to slightly high 50s on the national ballot, but on the provincial ballot it goes over 60%. So why is there a difference between the national and provincial ballot?

The reason results from coloured voter opinion, which is very firmly behind the DA on any ballot. On the provincial ballot, it is extremely strongly behind the DA. But on the national ballot, it flirts a bit with what you might call coloured nationalist voter sentiment. I’d anticipated ahead of this that we would see far stronger evidence of coloured voter nationalist sentiment. And this would be eroding DA support in the Western Cape. That was a sort of vague expectation I had. But the data suggests that was wrong and that the DA is extremely strong in the province.

But we broke that down further. So we did by language group, for example. So we did English home language voters, Afrikaans home language voters, and in the Western Cape, Xhosa home language voters. English and Afrikaans solid behind the DA. Xhosa, completely the opposite. There’s the Eastern Cape immigrant voters, because we tested that. When did you come to the Western Cape? Why did you come? So for the first time, we’ve got a baseline of knowledge of how political opinion splits in the Cape, depending on where you were born.

Immigrant Eastern Cape voters who come to the Western Cape are not drawn into the DA at all. I mean, it’s completely the opposite. Hostile to the party, very negative in their perceptions of how it governs. Completely different for white and coloured and Indian voters in the Western Cape, who are immensely positive about the DA and how it governs in the province.

So that was one of the standout things. We also compared perceptions of the country to perceptions of the Western Cape. So to ask questions such as, do you think South Africa is going in the right direction? The whole of the Western Cape. Here, here you Afrikaans, English and Xhosa voters are in the same place. And the whole country, they say absolute disaster on the Western Cape, however. English and Afrikaans says it’s going not just okay, it’s going really, really well. And your cause of voter splits from that.

The ANC is smashed in the Western Cape. I don’t remember exactly, but a few elections ago, the ANC was at 30%. I think in the most recent local poll, it comes down closer to 20%. We’ve got them now at about 10%. So they’re done. The EFF has taken their vote share and is now likely could well become, I mean, these polls aren’t predictions. What would likely have happened had there been an election in July in the Western Cape. But the EFF would now likely become the official opposition in the Western Cape.

And on that, and then at my last point, see what else you want to ask me. The broader opposition, the Action SA and so on, make a strategic mistake, we see, because they pour into the Western Cape and tend to go after the DA vote. If you do that in the Western Cape, you do really badly, because Western Cape residents in the main, the great majority, appreciate greatly what the DA is doing in that province. It’s very rare. I mean, I’ve done a lot of South African polling. I’ve never really seen an electorate appreciate a political movement. In the Western Cape, it does.

But had those splinter parties pursued a different strategy, the smaller opposition parties, had they pursued a different strategy in the Western Cape of chasing down the collapsing ANC vote they could have done really well and might even have emerged as official opposition party. So it’s always interesting the data after the fact to kind of see who had it right on strategy, who had it wrong. And I mean, I don’t know if it’s regrettable or not, but for them certainly it is. They could have had a bit of a foothold in the Western Cape and they don’t have that now.

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Alec Hogg: Patriotic Alliance doesn’t seem to be featuring as strongly in your research…

Frans Cronje: On the national ballot, it’s not bad. I mean, I don’t remember exactly but on the national ballot in the Western Cape, the PA is doing pretty well. It comes in under 10%, maybe at 7, 8%. That’s a lot. And it’s cannibalising some of Patricia De Lille GOOD Party vote I think.

So it’s not doing badly there, but on the provincial ballot, not terribly well. And the reason for that is what I suggested to you earlier, that when voting in your backyard, the confidence lies with the DA of voters.

We tested things such as questions such as, do you think it’s time for a sort of coloured nationalist party to enter the Western Cape? We asked questions such as, do you think, and the DA has been there a long time, do you think we should have some arrival to replace it and challenge it? Broadly, in English and Afrikaans speaking, voter opinion, the answers to all those questions were, no, we’re happy with what they are and we want to keep them where they are.

Alec Hogg: Is this consistent with what we saw in the by-election results in George, where the good party lost its final three wards in the country – two to the DA and one to Patriotic Alliance.

Frans Cronje: Yeah, well, one of my concerns on the data I’ve just quoted to you was some confidence. Does it stand up to the by-election results? In the recent George result, I’d say broadly it did. The PA wins a ward really by cannibalising the Patricia DeLille’s outfit, and the DA does well in two. But there were others earlier. If you go back to Barrydale, I mean, Gayton McKenzie’s PA does absolutely brilliantly.

You must always be open. I talk to a few politicians, they voice opinions on our data, which is great. I mean, they should. Analysts such as myself should invite skepticism of us. That’s, you know, a lot of analysts get it wrong.

So what’s going on there? Why sometimes do we see the PA make such massive inroads? Outside Port Elizabeth they did really well too. Why in the overall data aren’t we picking that up? My sense is broad recognition and a broad provincial ground game is not something that these smaller parties have developed.

Where a massive focus is placed on a particular region, the consequence of that focus is that they do very well. The longer term implication of that is, let’s say this, if someone said to me, well, you know, these parties became hugely well-resourced, let’s say something like the PA, hugely well-resourced, it developed a province-wide footprint and the ability to maintain that presence on the ground with a high level of intensity. It’s vote share in the Western Cape might rise very quickly.

But my call at this time, and I’ll buy the leaders of those parties bottles of wine as well if we’re totally wrong on this is I think on the provincial, on the national ballot in the Western Cape, the PA might aspire to, you know, somewhere around 10% of that vote. It’s likely as a consequence of a lack of the broad footprint that you need to be successful, not just there, but in any sort of political domain.

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Alec Hogg: So, what I’m hearing is that four Action South Africa, Patriotic Alliance, these new parties, if they really want to make inroads into the Western Cape, because it’s been so well governed by the DA they should be going for the ANC vote, not trying to take on the guys who are winning.

But just to close off with, I had a fascinating discussion yesterday with a well-connected guy in the ANC, who is like many, disheartened, but says he cannot see the DA become the leading party in the country because there’s not enough black faces in the upper echelons. But if there were, if Mmusi Maimane, Phumzile van Damme, and quite a few of the black politicians who were in the DA who have left. This insider told me if they were still there, the DA way have become the biggest party in SA after the 2024 election. Do you think he’s missing the boat completely?

Frans Cronje: Complicated question. Black faces will achieve nothing for you in politics. Yeah. I mean, there’s a lot of parties of black faces. I mean, UDM is black face, not beating the ANC. It’s much more than that.

In the data, people who will vote for the ANC in the next election are about half of all voters, 50%. About a third of those, so let’s say it’s 15% answer questions about the country and their hopes and dreams and values and aspirations in the same way that DA voters do. They are a market that is open to the DA. The DA could take that market. Why does it not? The reason is more complex than a black face, which doesn’t get you anywhere.

Two issues are important amongst others. One is there’s a perception that the DA creates an insider-outsider society, that it might govern better, but it creates an insider community and then a periphery of outsiders. And the outsiders travel or commute in and out of that community. And you might say to them, look, we’ve got a better periphery than the ANC had, more electricity, perhaps more jobs. But the sense of it is it’s an old colonial dynamic.

For an ANC voter who has to make the very difficult decision about whether they stay with the party that they’d been invested in so deeply for their lives and generations before them because of what it did to liberate black South Africans from white oppression. When you face such an obstacle, it slows the flow into the opposition ranks.

A second obstacle to moving to the opposition broadly is the widely held fear in ANC voter circles that the defeat of the party would translate into violence. And that’s a very real fear. It’s keenly felt. And if you remove those two concerns or dilute them vastly the result will be an accelerated flow of voters from the ANC towards the DA. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but that’s the answer to your question.

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