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ANC’s stance on Israel won’t sway Muslim vote



The African National Congress (ANC) is facing its sternest challenge since the end of apartheid. For the first time in democratic South Africa, the party’s support could fall below 50%, and it could find itself out of government in places like KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. Even in provinces which have traditionally been ANC strongholds, like the Free State, the party is under unprecedented pressure.

Already, there have been dark mutterings by President Cyril Ramaphosa about foreign forces seeking “regime change” in this country, perhaps laying the foundation for excuses should the ANC do poorly in the upcoming election – which will probably be held in May.

But could the ANC’s recent decision to take Israel to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over the war in Gaza help the governing party shore up its support among Muslim South Africans? Are we likely to see a surge in support for the ANC from South Africans who follow Islam?

First, we must remember that the Muslim community in South Africa is a diverse one. The interests of a Muslim doctor of Indian descent living in Umhlanga won’t be the same as a coloured Muslim who lives on the Cape Flats and works as a delivery driver. A recent white convert to Islam in Johannesburg won’t have the same concerns as a Muslim immigrant from Nigeria who has recently won South African citizenship.

Just as it’s a mug’s game to talk about any racial community in South Africa as if it were a homogenous group, when it comes to things like social views and voting patterns, it’s similarly foolhardy to talk about any religious community as one homogenous group. Even within the South African Jewish community, there are wide differences of opinion on Israel’s actions in the war with Hamas, with some Jewish South Africans thinking Israel isn’t going far enough, while others are indifferent to the existence of Israel itself. There’s no reason to think Muslims will be any different.

And though there’s no polling on the basis of religion in South Africa, it would be surprising if the views of Muslims were significantly out of step with most other South Africans.

Polling from a variety of sources shows that foreign policy is low down on the list of the concerns of South Africans. And it must be asked whether even the most ardent supporter of Palestine in South Africa would vote ANC while experiencing load or water-shedding, the latter, concerningly, starting to become much more common in this country than in the past.

Polling by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) towards the end of last year showed that voters weren’t concerned with what was happening abroad, but rather with “bread-and-butter” issues. Most South Africans said the biggest issues concerning them were things like unemployment, corruption, crime, and problems with electricity and sanitation.

Foreign policy didn’t feature.

And the IRR survey isn’t an outlier. An Afrobarometer survey conducted last year produced similar findings, with most South Africans saying that issues such as service delivery, crime, and unemployment were more important.

Of course, these surveys were conducted before Israel launched its war on Hamas, following the grotesque events of 7 October, and South Africa’s subsequent action in taking Israel to the ICJ, but it would be surprising if the sentiments they revealed have changed significantly.

We can only speculate about whether the vote of Muslim South Africans will be swayed because of the actions of the South African government over the past few weeks, but evidence from abroad could give us some direction.

In the United Kingdom, much has been made of the fact that Muslim Britons are opposed to the stance of the leadership of the Labour Party on the Gaza conflict. Traditionally, Muslims have, as a rule, been staunch supporters of Labour, but the relatively pro-Israel views of its leader, Keir Starmer, has resulted in some infighting within the party and speculation that Muslims could abandon Labour en masse.

A recent survey showed that Labour had experienced a drop in the proportion of Muslim support, but this drop was relative, with about 60% of Muslims saying they would still support the party – down from about 72% who supported it in the last general election.

For most Muslim voters, however, bread-and-butter issues were at the forefront. Only 15% said that the conflict in Gaza was the most important issue when it came to deciding how to vote in the next British election, the cost-of-living, the economy, and the National Health Service all being ranked by more people as electoral concerns. It wouldn’t be a wild assumption to think that South African Muslims would be the same.

In addition, Muslims are a relatively small minority in South Africa. People who follow Islam in South Africa make up about 2% of the population. If we assumed they also made up 2% of voters, even as a bloc, they would have a relatively small impact on elections, and it’s highly unlikely all Muslims would vote the same way in any case.

It’s unlikely, therefore, that South Africa’s current stance on Israel will result in the ANC experiencing a significant rise in support from Muslims. And even if all Muslims decided that they would vote for the governing party, it would be unlikely to be enough to stem the votes that the party would lose to other parties because of the shambolic way it has governed over the past 15 years.

If the ANC wants its support to rise once again, its best bet would be to start running the country properly and put South Africa on a sustainable path to development and prosperity.

  • Marius Roodt is a writer and senior researcher at the Institute of Race Relations.

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