Polls are an essential part of election coverage


Anton Harber will be joining eNCA in March as editor-in-chief.

JOHANNESBURG - At eNCA, we are the only South African media outlet which has invested significantly in that essential element of election coverage: an election poll. We did it because it increases interest in the ballot, gives us a sense of where things are heading, and should make both voters and political parties more aware of what they are dealing with and how important their vote will be. It is standard practice in most democracies.

But in South Africa, we are threatened with a protest for doing it. The SACP have said they will picket our offices “demanding answers behind the broadcaster survey which has been misrepresenting public sentiment”.

We are under attack for doing what the media does – report on how things are looking in the run-up to an important ballot.

Our eNCA/IPSOS weekly poll of the three most contested big cities in the August 3 local government election is now in the fifth of the seven weeks we are running it. It has shown that the ANC is in decline in Tshwane, Johannesburg and Nelson Mandela Bay, and the DA has made surprising gains. Joburg is still neck and neck, but it points to no party likely to get a majority in either Tshwane and NMB.  Perhaps it is this uncomfortable truth that the SACP is protesting against.

There are enough undecided votes, though, to still swing (to) which party will take the lead on the actual voting (day).

The SACP is particularly concerned about what the polls showed about Tshwane – where the DA was reported as pulling far ahead of the ANC in the wake of the recent intra-ANC violence in the area. This does not match what party workers are experiencing on the ground, they argue.

So which would you believe: a scientific poll by an international company with a solid reputation for this kind of work, and a history of accurate polling in this country, or the gut feel of party campaigners on the ground? Interesting question.

We invited the SACP to visit us this week, as we are happy to share with them our polling company’s methodology and the evidence they have to show their sampling is sound and matches international standards. Of course, they are still open to challenge and we have no difficulty with those who want to question their accuracy. We even gave our critics airtime in an on-air debate this week about the accuracy of the polls.

On air, regional SAPC chair Jacob Mamabolo accused us of having an agenda of “regime change”. What? We commission polls, they are done by one of the most experienced and reputable pollsters in the country, we publish the results as they give them to us – how does that give us such an agenda other than bringing information to the public? I understand the results may favour one party or another, but I am not sure how you can say that that is determined by our agenda.

It seems to me that a decision to protest against the polls says more about the SACP and their priorities than it does our reporting.

I have heard three substantive questions raised about our polls: are they representative of the full range of citizens in these cities, is it enough to poll 500 people in each city, and what about those who do not have telephones, since this is what we are using?

Well, the 500 are fully representative, drawn from every rank and every part of Pretoria, and, if that is the case then 500 people more than meets international standards for such polls. Ninety-four percent of residents of these cities have cellphones, so there is no significant distortion because we are polling them via these phones.

But the problem might be what one expects from these polls. All they give us is the temperature on the day they are taken – an indication of how people are thinking at that time.

The voters might be lying to us, or they might change their mind in the next few weeks. After all, we know the ANC is rolling out its formidable election machinery. And there is a margin of error, which we spell out each week. So it would be a mistake to make a precise prediction based on these polls, especially since a large chunk of voters are either refusing to answer our questions or are still undecided.

But the research does tell us the current trends – and they make it clear that we should get used to a new era of coalition rule in at least two of the major cities.

I suppose we should be flattered that political parties are showing so much interest in our polls. But I look forward to the day when they are a routine part of our election build-up and not something parties would consider protesting over.

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