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Issued by Ismail Joosub and Ezra Mendel on behalf of the FW de Klerk Foundation on 25/06/2024



The 2024 election cycle not only underscored the vibrancy of South Africa’s political landscape, but also revealed deep-seated shifts in voter behaviour. As one of the most hotly contested elections in the nation’s history, the 2024 polls brought to the fore the profound impact of identity politics on electoral outcomes. In a country founded on the foundational values of non-racialism, as enshrined in the Constitution (section 1(b)), the role of identity politics poses critical questions about our path forward as a unified nation.

This article will attempt to look at whether such identity politics resulted in any shifts in voter behaviour. In exploring the rise of identity politics, this article examines first, how political parties strategically engaged with racial identities to gain support. It will attempt to do so by examining if the identity politics employed by the Patriotic Alliance (“PA”) aimed at the “Brown” (formerly Coloured) race demographic, resulted in a change in how voters within this demographic voted. Second, whether these strategies shaped the electoral outcomes of 2024. Finally, this article will consider what the implications are for South Africa’s future.


The Rise of Identity Politics:

At the outset, it needs to be acknowledged that not all members of a particular demographic group vote uniformly: South Africa has a very diverse political landscape that reflects its diverse citizens’ views and interests. This is evidenced by the sheer number of political parties on the ballots.

The exploration of racial and ethnic identities in the political party rhetoric and in campaigning is not new. It has, however, intensified in recent years, reflecting global movements where identity serves as a potent political lever. In the 2024 elections, identity-based considerations played a pivotal role, particularly in the Western Cape Province, where historical voting patterns underscored the impact of identity on political allegiance.


Historical Context and Electoral Dynamics:

Apartheid divided people along racial lines. A crime against humanity that has still left scars in the joint psyche of South Africans. While we have made great strides in refusing to be bound by these scars, they still resurface, as seen in recent racial identity politics.

Should the Western Cape Province be divided along racial demographics, the Brown community comprises approximately 48% of the population. Thus, to maintain its majority in the province, the Democratic Alliance (“DA”) has historically relied on this community’s support. Since 1994, the DA strategically cultivated the “Brown vote”, securing a significant electoral base that contributed to its dominance in the province. The 2024 elections saw parties that played identity politics, like the PA, making substantial gains. The PA’s strategy seems to have been to appeal exclusively to this community by portraying themselves as one of them and acknowledging their specific grievances.

Statistical Insights:

  • 2004 to 2014: The DA’s support among Brown voters rose significantly from 24% in 2004 to 78% in 2014, consolidating its majority.
  • 2019 to 2024: Smaller parties collectively garnered 16,6% of the provincial vote in 2019 and 25,05% in 2024, highlighting their growing influence and the fragmentation of voter allegiances, potentially among racial lines.
  • 2024: The PA emerged as the third-largest party in the Western Cape in 2024 with 7,8% of the provincial vote, underscoring the appeal of identity-driven politics.


Challenges and Future Directions:

While identity politics (on any grounds) offers avenues for representation and mobilisation, it also poses challenges to unity amongst South Africans, especially if it is based on race as this feeds into the joint scars our society is still healing from. The emphasis on ethnic or racial identities risks reinforcing societal divisions and entrenching an “us versus them” mentality as opposed to a “I am a South African first” shared identity. Furthermore, it detracts from citizens debating a party’s policy and/or governance effectiveness. Moreover, the proliferation of identity-based parties complicates coalition dynamics (as a party that campaigned using identity politics will risk its voters seeing it as “getting into bed with the enemy”) and governance post-election, potentially fragmenting political landscapes further.

2024 Election Results and Voter Fluidity:

The 2024 elections saw the African National Congress (“ANC”) failing to secure a majority for the first time in 30 years, receiving only 40,2% of the vote nationally. The DA maintained its position with 21,8% of the vote (i.e. it failed to grow), while the Economic Freedom Fighters (“EFF”) saw a slight decline to 9,5%. The uMkhonto we Sizwe (“MK”) Party emerged as a disruptor, gaining 14,6% of the national vote and achieving the largest share, although not an outright majority, in KwaZulu-Natal (45,9%).

Surveys and exit polls indicate a growing trend of voter fluidity, with significant shifts observed among South African voters between elections. Abstention rates rose to 41,6% in 2024, up from 34,0% in 2019, reflecting disillusionment among the electorate. Many former ANC supporters turned away, contributing to the party’s decline from 57,5% in 2019 to 40,2% in 2024.


The Brown Demographic: Voting Patterns in the 2024 Elections

1. DA:

The DA has grappled with the complexities of identity politics, reflecting its evolution and strategic shifts. In 2019, the DA was criticised for adopting identity politics over offering substantive solutions to pressing issues like unemployment and crime. In a 2024 article published on the official DA website, “The DA circa 2019 was trying to out-ANC the ANC, playing the dangerous game of identity politics rather than setting out an alternative stall that offered credible solutions to the issues affecting ordinary South Africans, such as crippling unemployment, rolling blackouts and violent crime.”

However, introspection within the party has sparked reforms, focusing instead on revitalising internal structures and reaffirming non-racialism. Polling leading up to the 2024 elections indicated growing support, including from black voters, challenging the notion that non-racial policies are electorally detrimental. The DA claims that it aims to govern key provinces by leveraging its improved standing, emphasising governance successes in contrast to its rivals.

In 2024, the DA faced significant challenges in maintaining its hold on the Brown vote in the Western Cape amidst a landscape increasingly contested by smaller parties. Despite retaining control of the province with 55,29% of the vote, a slight drop from 55,45% in the previous election, the DA encountered formidable competition, particularly from the PA.

In the areas surrounding Cape Town, governed by the DA, the DA faces significant criticism and challenges, especially in poorer townships and low-income neighbourhoods where service delivery remains inadequate. Gugulethu, Nyanga, Mitchells Plain and Manenberg are among the areas in the Cape Flats where residents experience severe socio-economic hardships. These communities struggle with high unemployment rates, overcrowding, insufficient housing and pervasive issues like violent crime, gang violence and drug abuse. Basic services, such as reliable water supply, electricity and sanitation, are often lacking or inadequate, exacerbating residents’ frustrations and feelings of neglect. (Gugulethu, for instance, has been a focal point of discontent, with sewerage problems, potholes and uncollected refuse highlighting ongoing challenges despite the DA’s governance in the Western Cape since 2009.)

These disparities between affluent suburbs (historically White areas like the southern suburbs) and poor suburbs which are neglected underscore a deep-seated socio-economic, or “class” divide within Cape Town. While areas like Constantia enjoy well-maintained infrastructure, clean streets and reliable services, townships like Gugulethu continue to face neglect and underdevelopment.

According to a report by the Human Sciences Research Council (“HSRC”), Cape Town’s entrenched spatial divisions reflect its apartheid history and persistent inequality. The report details that affluent neighbourhoods, predominantly inhabited by professionals and business owners, benefit from better services, while poorer areas struggle with inadequate infrastructure and higher crime rates.

For example, Bishopscourt, despite being the most expensive suburb and having a significant non-white population, still contrasts sharply with areas like Masiphumelele township, which borders the wealthy Lake Michelle estate. Residents in Masiphumelele experience vastly different living conditions, including higher unemployment and limited access to basic services compared to their affluent neighbours.

This evidence from the HSRC underscores the need for a more inclusive approach to urban planning and resource allocation, addressing both historical injustices and current socio-economic challenges to bridge the gap between different communities in Cape Town.

Political analysts and social activists argue that the DA’s focus on showcasing Cape Town as a “well-run city” overlooks the stark realities of inequality and systemic neglect experienced by poor communities who are being overlooked and marginalised by the City. The DA’s narrative of efficient governance and progress rings hollow in areas where residents still struggle for basic amenities and quality of life improvements in these poor and unsafe areas.

In the context of Cape Town’s socio-economic disparities, it is important to clarify the demographic makeup of areas such as Gugulethu and Khayelitsha, where the DA confronts challenges in governance. Black residents predominantly inhabit these townships.

Gugulethu, for instance, primarily comprises of Black residents, facing deep-seated socio-economic challenges including high unemployment and inadequate infrastructure. The HSRC’s research underscores these disparities, contrasting affluent suburbs like Bishopscourt with townships like Masiphumelele, where residents experience starkly different living conditions.

Therefore, while the DA has historically relied on support from voters in more affluent suburban settings, its task lies in addressing the concerns of predominantly Black or Brown residents in poorer suburbs or townships.

2. PA:

The PA openly embraces identity politics, particularly focusing on the Brown community. The PA strategically mobilises along ethnic lines to consolidate support, acknowledging Brown/Coloured nationalism as a driving force. In the words of the PA’s Head of Strategy, Charles Cilliers, “From the outset, those of us that started the PA were aware that coloured nationalism was brewing, but it hadn’t really exploded or taken form and that somebody was going to come into that. You see it with the Cape Coloured Congress – they also want to tap into that coloured frustration and nationalism.

The PA and Freedom Front Plus (“FF Plus”) both align their strategies with local demographics – Brown and White Afrikaans-speaking residents, respectively – indicating a race-based approach to politics. Critics have also argued that the DA adopts the same strategy with Whites.

Helen Zille, leader of the DA’s Federal Council, criticised this approach, stating that McKenzie’s exclusive focus on the Brown vote risks fostering ethnic divisions rather than promoting unity as South Africans. She expressed concern that such ethnic identity voting patterns could undermine effective governance and coalition stability in the future.

In the recent elections, the PA, led by Gayton McKenzie, achieved notable success in mobilising the poor Brown vote in South Africa, through strategic appeals and identity politics. For example, the PA established a stronghold in Eldorado Park, a township in the southwest of Johannesburg. This community, known for its challenges including gang activity and poverty, became a focal point for the PA’s campaign efforts. By addressing local issues and advocating for the interests of Brown residents, the PA gained significant support in this area.

As another example, during their campaigns PA representatives conducted extensive door-to-door visits across areas with numerous Brown residents. They engaged directly with residents who expressed concerns such as the closure of local spaza shops due to competition from Somalian businesses and reduced employment opportunities as domestic workers or gardeners. These interactions helped the PA connect with Brown voters on a personal level and tailor their promises to address specific community needs.

McKenzie’s leadership and the PA’s electoral strategy focused on addressing perceived neglect and disenfranchisement among Brown voters by larger political parties like the DA and ANC.

McKenzie’s approach capitalised on identity politics by positioning the PA as a champion for Brown South Africans who felt marginalised or overlooked by mainstream parties. Despite portraying itself as inclusive of all racial groups and rejecting claims that it is “pro-Brown people only”, the PA strategically targeted Brown communities with promises of representation and advocacy tailored to their specific needs and concerns, such as bringing “God back into schools”, tackling crime, unemployment and advocating for local job reservations for Brown people. This strategy resonated with voters disillusioned by traditional parties (who they may have felt overlooked their needs) and seeking more direct and responsive leadership.

However, McKenzie’s leadership style and the PA’s policies have sparked concerns among critics who view his rhetoric on issues such as immigration and economic empowerment as divisive and potentially harmful. For instance, his comments thatafter we have been sworn in, I am going straight to the Rahima Moosa Hospital where we are going to switch off the oxygen of illegal foreigners” has sparked significant concerns, with political analyst Sandile Swana calling the comments “blatantly criminal”. This outspoken stance against illegal immigration, while popular among some Brown voters concerned about job opportunities and local development, has been criticised for promoting xenophobia and exacerbating social tensions.

Moreover, McKenzie’s background as an entrepreneur and his charismatic persona were instrumental in attracting support, particularly in rural Brown areas where economic disparities are pronounced. His appeal as a strong leader willing to take decisive action resonated with voters looking for tangible solutions to community issues.

Despite these successes, McKenzie’s polarising rhetoric and the PA’s controversial positions on certain policy issues (like immigration) have also alienated potential supporters who prioritise inclusivity and tolerance in politics. Critics argue that McKenzie’s approach risks deepening societal divisions and undermining efforts towards national unity and social cohesion.

Thus, The PA’s strategic use of identity politics, particularly focusing on Brown/Coloured nationalism, played a significant role in their electoral gains. By addressing specific community concerns, such as crime, unemployment and perceived neglect by larger parties, the PA resonated with poorer Brown voters, especially in areas like Eldorado Park. McKenzie’s charismatic leadership and targeted promises effectively mobilised support within this demographic.

However, the success seems limited to the poorer segments of the Brown community, suggesting that while racial identity politics was successful in garnering votes from this specific group, it may not have broadly appealed across economic classes. This indicates that while identity politics can be effective, its impact might be confined to certain socioeconomic strata, highlighting both its potential and its limitations in creating a broader, more inclusive appeal.

3. GOOD Party:

The GOOD Party, led by Patricia de Lille, struggled to gain traction among Brown voters in the 2024 elections, securing just over 1% of the vote in the Western Cape.

Unlike the PA, which successfully employed identity politics by focusing on Brown nationalism amongst the poorer socioeconomic strata, the GOOD Party emphasised governance and social justice, avoiding identity-based appeals. While this strategy of avoiding identity politics was less effective overall in a political landscape where identity politics strongly influences voter behaviour, it was particularly ineffective among the poorer socioeconomic classes where identity-based appeals resonate more strongly.

Brett Herron of the GOOD Party criticised the reliance on identity politics, arguing it undermines national unity and prioritises group interests over broader societal needs. However, the entrenched loyalty of Brown voters to larger parties like the DA and the rise of newer alternatives like the PA (which directly addressed local and community-specific issues) overshadowed GOOD’s more inclusive messaging. Financial constraints due to a lack of funding may have also limited GOOD’s outreach efforts and perceptions of the party as smaller and less influential may have further hindered its appeal.

Unlike the GOOD Party, the PA strategically employed identity politics, focusing specifically on issues affecting the Brown community, which directly addressed the community’s needs and frustrations. This approach allowed the PA to break through the established loyalties and appeal to voters on a more personal and immediate level. Additionally, the PA’s robust grassroots campaigning and targeted outreach efforts, including door-to-door visits and addressing local issues, helped them gain significant traction despite financial constraints. This combination of identity-focused messaging and direct community engagement gave the PA an edge that the GOOD Party’s broader, more inclusive approach lacked. Interestingly, while GOOD focused intensely on increasing basic income grants, the PA instead focused on socio-economic challenges that directly affect the coloured community.

4. National Coloured Congress (“NCC”):

The NCC, led by Fadiel Adams, emerged as a notable, but small fringe party in the 2024 elections, particularly appealing to Brown voters through a platform centred on identity politics and community-focused activism.

Established in 2020 as the Cape Coloured Congress before rebranding, the NCC initially focused on addressing the specific challenges faced by Brown communities in the Western Cape, such as economic marginalisation and social issues prevalent on the Cape Flats.

The NCC was formed as an offshoot of community-led movements like the Gatvol Capetonian, which highlighted issues such as unemployment among youth, gangsterism, housing affordability and municipal tariffs. Under Adams’ leadership, the party gained visibility by advocating for economic opportunities for Brown youth, occasionally resulting in controversial actions like shutting down businesses that failed to employ local Brown youth, prompting legal challenges from authorities.

In the 2024 elections, the NCC secured two seats in the National Assembly with 0,23% of the national vote and it gained 2,38% of the vote in the Western Cape provincial election, earning one seat in the provincial legislature. This electoral performance marked a significant milestone for the party, which had not previously held any seats in the National Assembly.

Fadiel Adams’ grassroots activism and straightforward approach resonated with voters disillusioned by traditional party politics and perceived neglect by larger political entities. The NCC framed its agenda as the voice and advocated for Brown South Africans, emphasising identity politics to highlight historical and cultural identity as fundamental to political representation and economic opportunities.

However, critics argue that the NCC’s focus on identity politics may reinforce ethnic divisions and distract from broader national challenges. As a small fringe party, the NCC faces ongoing challenges, including expanding its support beyond regional strongholds, navigating coalition dynamics and demonstrating its ability to translate campaign promises into tangible legislative outcomes that benefit a wider spectrum of South Africans.

The PA’s greater success compared to the NCC, despite both playing identity politics, can be attributed to several key factors. Firstly, the PA, under Gayton McKenzie’s charismatic leadership, managed to resonate with a broader demographic within the Brown community, including both rural and urban poor voters. McKenzie’s background as an entrepreneur and his effective grassroots campaigning, which included addressing local issues and engaging directly with residents, allowed the PA to connect more deeply with the community’s immediate concerns, such as crime, unemployment and local job reservations.

In contrast, the NCC, led by Fadiel Adams, remained more regionally focused (particularly on the Cape Flats) and did not manage to expand its appeal significantly beyond its local strongholds or beyond the Western Cape.

Additionally, the PA’s strategic use of identity politics was complemented by a clear and compelling message of advocacy and representation, positioning itself as a champion for Brown South Africans who felt neglected by larger parties. This approach, coupled with McKenzie’s ability to mobilise support through church services and community rallies, enabled the PA to secure a more substantial voter base, particularly among the poorer segments of the Brown community, who sought direct and responsive leadership.

5. uMkhonto weSizwe (“MK”) Party

The MK Party strategically engaged South Africa’s political arena by intertwining race-based appeals with economic empowerment, targeting constituencies profoundly affected by historical injustices and socio-economic disparities. Across the country, particularly in regions like Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape, where land issues and economic marginalisation are acute, the party’s platform resonated.

Whilst soaring with support predominately from Zulu-speaking communities in KZN, characterising the MK Party as “tribalist” oversimplifies the complexities behind its electoral success in South Africa. The party’s rise cannot be reduced solely to ethnic or tribal affiliations, due to the existence of the quintessential Zulu party, the Inkatha Freedom Party (“IFP”).

While it’s undeniable that the MK Party has garnered significant support from Zulu-speaking communities in KZN, attributing its success purely to tribalism ignores broader political dynamics and historical contexts. Some have argued that South Africa’s history of Apartheid and colonialism entrenched regional identities tied to ethnic demographics, shaping political allegiances nationwide.

Ethnicism and regionalism are prevalent across South Africa’s political spectrum, evident within the ANC itself, where internal power struggles often align with regional and ethnic lines. Therefore, labelling the MK Party as tribalist disregards deeper motivations among its supporters, including dissatisfaction with the ANC’s governance, perceptions of persecution against Zuma and disillusionment with other opposition parties.

The MK Party’s appeal also reflects the influence of personal charisma and identity in South African politics. Zuma’s personal narrative and symbolic significance resonates beyond ethnic boundaries, appealing to voters disillusioned with mainstream political options. This cult of personality, rooted in cultural and historical contexts, shapes voter behaviour in ways that extend beyond simplistic tribal, racial or ethnic affiliations.


Identity-Based Voting in Various Regions:

Eldorado Park

In the 2016 municipal elections, the DA dominated in Eldorado Park in Johannesburg with 81% of the votes, while the PA received only 3%. However, the 2021 elections marked a significant shift, with the DA’s support plummeting to 18,80% and the PA experiencing a substantial surge to 63,01%. A similar trend was observed in Westbury, another predominantly Brown community in Johannesburg.


In 2016, the DA secured 59% of the votes in Westbury, while the PA received just 1,67%. The 2021 municipal elections witnessed a dramatic change as the DA’s support decreased to 31%, with notable gains for ActionSA and the ANC. The PA also made significant strides, capturing 13,71% of the votes, highlighting its growing appeal in the area.

The Cape Brown Region

Hanover Park, another Brown area grappling with high crime rates and socio-economic challenges, also reflects shifting political dynamics. In the 2016 elections, the DA dominated in Hanover Park with 77,71%, while the PA secured 11,03%. By 2021, the DA’s support declined to 52,63% and the PA’s share increased to 17,95%, indicating changing voter preferences in response to local issues.

Middle to Upper Middle-Class Brown Communities

Middle to upper-middle-class Brown individuals and communities often lean towards the DA, prioritising concerns such as health insurance, university fees and taxes. These voters perceive the DA as more aligned with their economic interests and stability. Parties like the PA and NCC, which focus on poor Brown communities, may struggle to resonate with these voters due to differing priorities and policy emphases.


Conclusion: The Primacy of Constitutional Adherence

The 2024 elections underscored the complexity of South Africa’s democratic landscape, revealing significant shifts in voter behaviour and the rise of identity-based politics. Racial identity politics played a critical role, particularly among Brown voters, as evidenced by the successes of the PA and NCC. These parties tapped into cultural and historical identities, addressing both community-specific concerns and broader socio-economic issues.

However, the success of identity politics was not uniform. The PA’s broader appeal, which included addressing economic hardships, resonated deeply with the Brown working class, demonstrating the importance of integrating identity with socio-economic advocacy. In contrast, parties that solely focused on socio-economic disparities and shifted away from race-based politics, like the DA, were noticeably challenged by parties like the PA.

Class dynamics were equally crucial. Voters responded strongly to parties that acknowledged their cultural identity and promised tangible improvements in their daily lives. This interplay of identity and class suggests that effective political engagement must holistically address both aspects to resonate with voters.

Ultimately, while racial identity politics can be effective, it is incompatible with the foundational value of non-racialism enshrined in the Constitution. Adherence to these constitutional principles ensures unity and inclusivity, promoting a cohesive national identity while addressing the specific needs of diverse communities. Departing from them may seem to bring short-term gains, but at what expense to our nation’s long-term unity?