Racial Isolation Drives Racial Voting: Evidence from the New South Africa

Daniel de Kadt

Melissa L. Sands

Why do voters support parties that are closely aligned with their racial identities? One set of under-explored hypotheses relate to the racial context in which voters reside. Voters’ lived experiences – who they encounter and interact with – may have profound consequences for their politics, preferences, and behaviors.

The case of South Africa, which transitioned to multiparty democracy in 1994 after almost 100 years of state-led segregation under colonial and apartheid rule, provides a unique laboratory for studying such context effects. Under the 1913 Natives Land Act, and subsequent legislation in the 1930s and 1950s, the vast majority of South Africa’s land was reserved for its minority white population. Black African, Coloured, and Indian South Africans were forced into disproportionately small, isolated spaces.

The collapse of apartheid, and the repeal of these segregationist laws, heralded massive shifts in the spatial distribution of different people in South Africa. Previously reserved white areas, especially those in urban and suburban spaces, became demographically mixed to differing degrees. Numerous factors shaped the migratory decisions made by black South Africans; for example, physical geography made certain spaces more likely to experience integration than others.

Given this context, we study whether white South Africans – the demographic minority but socio-economically dominant group – behave differently at the ballot box as a result of the racial contexts in which they live. To do so, we leverage data from a variety of sources. We combine data from South Africa’s final apartheid-era census in 1991 with geographic, census and electoral data from the post-apartheid period. We are thus able to examine how the demographic composition of South African neighborhoods, conditional on apartheid era demographics, is associated with electoral returns for different parties. We then combine a high-resolution cross-sectional survey dataset from South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council with contemporary census data to test whether individual voting intentions and attitudes are associated with an individual’s demographic context.

Across both datasets we find that white South Africans who live in segregated areas – amongst almost exclusively other whites – are far more likely to support “white parties” like the Democratic Alliance or the Freedom Front Plus, than white voters who do not. Using natural geography as a statistical instrument, a difference-in-differences design, placebo tests using individual measures of racial resentment, and unique data on title deeds transfers for the immediate post-apartheid period, we show that the results are likely causal, and not simply the result of omitted variables bias or residential sorting.

Apartheid ranks among the most profound and disturbing acts of state-led social engineering in history, and our study provides new insights into its long term consequences. There is a great need for empirically rigorous work on the legacies of exclusionary economic and geographic structures. Our paper begins to unpack these consequences, providing insights and avenues for future research, and the newly constructed data sets will provide exciting opportunities for social scientists. Yet the findings have implications outside of South Africa; there are fundamental similarities between apartheid South Africa and many other countries. Racial isolation and segregation remain ubiquitous worldwide, and our study highlights the importance of social diversity in encouraging diverse politics.

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