Thursday, 18 August 2016

Will The Real DA Please Stand Up!

The official opposition in South Africa, the Democratic Alliance (DA), has suffered from the lack of a clear, coherent political vision for many years. Its political messaging has largely consisted of a pledge to provide better governance than the African National Congress (ANC), and for many years its actual policies – on paper – have mirrored that of the ANC so closely that it has become difficult to distinguish them from the ANC in substantial terms. 

Both parties are largely centrist in nature, with the ANC leaning slightly left of centre, promising social welfare and transformation through state intervention – and the DA leaning slight right of centre viewing business and private sector growth as critical vectors to address social problems such as inequality and unemployment. Until very recently, they have mainly been distinguished by their racial composition, with the ANC being largely inhabited and supported by black South Africans, and the DA largely being composed and supported by white South Africans and minorities such as ‘coloureds’ and Indians. The minority vote for the DA is not guaranteed, but has drifted towards the DA over time as the perception that the ANC has become less responsive to their needs has grown.

The DA’s lack of a distinctive politics (i.e. a set of political principles and an ideological foundation that clearly identifies it as different from the ANC) has persisted since the dawn of a democratic dispensation in 1994. Its first leader in the new democracy – Tony Leon – was an unrestrained contrarian, who consistently lodged objections (especially to how black economic empowerment and affirmative action was being implemented), which reinforced white minority fears of the new black government. In 1998, he famously referred to the Employment Equity Bill as “a pernicious piece of social engineering” that codified “the politics of envy”, and decried the impact it would have on business, whom he claimed was “anxious” to transform. In his view, business would transform better left to its own devices as ‘market forces’ would ensure it.

Almost twenty years later, despite the bill being passed, South African organizations are still mainly run by white male managers (i.e. whites made up 68.9 per cent, with 78.6 per cent of these being men). Nonetheless, most of Tony Leon’s original electorate (and their offspring) continue to believe that affirmative action simply amounts to denying whites opportunities on the basis of race. He grew the DA during his leadership, but not significantly beyond the white minority, occasionally capturing the vote of local minorities who could be swayed.

While Tony Leon’s political philosophy was not overt, the assumptions underlying his tenure as leader was typical of the neoliberal age; pro-business and pro “market forces” as substitute for political intervention and political programmes of action that the government and state could implement. At the height of the neoliberal era, the notion that governments and the state performed best by facilitating business and private sector interests was pervasive, and his fervent devotion to relegating critical issues like transformation and diversification to “market forces” is now thoroughly discredited by historical evidence.

In 2007, he was still arguing against affirmative action as outgoing leader of the DA. In the end, he never offered a coherent alternative political vision for the majority of South Africans, who suffered greatly under the Apartheid project, which was described by the United Nations as “a crime against humanity”. His politics amounted to that of a self-referential righteous indignation, a reactionary politics that offered little alternative to that which it so vehemently criticised. His exit became imminent when it became clear that his brand of politics augured no viable political future for the DA as a considerable force in opposition politics.

The next leader of the DA, Helen Zille, had far more success in growing the DA. Under her leadership, the DA adopted a far more grassroots, populist approach to canvassing and campaigning, using methods that mirrored the ANC, which enjoyed strong grassroots linkages and support. Unlike Tony Leon, she spoke Xhosa, danced on stage, and was not above getting into the realm of populist discourse that emerged with the likes of sitting ANC president Jacob Zuma and the firebrand ex-leader of the ANC Youth League Julius Malema (who helped Zuma get into power, but who is now the president and “commander in chief” of the Economic Freedom Fighters after being kicked out of Zuma’s ANC).

As Mayor of Cape Town, Helen Zille, quickly obtained a reputation for a vigorous work ethic and efficient micro-management of critical administrative issues, going on radio shows to take direct feedback from the public and following up on it personally, and for making inroads (albeit slight) into black communities despite the various challenges she faced in doing so. She would trade insults with Julius Malema on public platforms, referring to him as an “Nkwenkwe” (a derogatory term for an uncircumcised male) in Xhosa. Like Tony Leon, however, her leadership of the DA was also characterised by a lack of a clear political philosophy or vision that distinguished the DA from the ANC.

The clues to her personal political orientation, however, emerged most often in instances where she spoke off-the-cuff, often drawing accusations of racism from black South Africans in the process. Her pejorative nickname has, for many years, been “Madame Zille”, a reference to the servant-master relationship that black South Africans have long been subjected to under Apartheid “baaskap”, which saw millions of black men and women relegated to the roles of domestic workers and gardeners in white homes where they answered to a male “baas” (boss) and a female “madam”.

As leader of the DA she offered up little in the form of a coherent political vision, choosing instead to fight it out on populist turf that average South Africans, both black and white, could relate to with ease. She fully embraced the politics of plastic and “make-overs”, receiving voice coaching and taking Botox injections to fit the part. What she lacked in terms of gravitas, she made up for with a strict work ethic and a willingness to get down and dirty with the best of the populists that hijacked the political realm after Thabo Mbeki was recalled as president of the country and the ANC in 2007.

However, she did manage to transform the DA leadership’s racial profile significantly, attracting Patricia de Lille (from the Pan African Congress) into the DA fold, grooming the young black middle class parliamentarian Lindiwe Mazibuko, who was later controversially shelved for the current leader of the DA Mmusi Maimane, who in real terms, enjoys far wider appeal due to his working class origins, his rhetorical oratory ability, his ability to communicate in different languages, and his natural qualities as a unifying leader. In addition, the fact that he is in a mixed relationship with a white woman, lends additional credence to his standing as a proponent of non-racialism (which has long been the ANC’s political mantra).

Mmusi Maimane made his political debut in the last municipal election, by running for mayor of Johannesburg as the DA candidate. He is a self-declared man of faith, a devoted member and pastor of a conservative Christian church, whose rhetorical oratory power is strengthened by his experience as a preacher. It cuts the same tone as Obama adopted in his 2008 campaign, where he drew on the oratory style and phrasing of civil rights leaders such as the Reverend Martin Luther King. However, in Obama’s campaign there was another voice within it, one that held the promise of a new society that the young John F Kennedy once inspired. In Mmusi Maimane’s leadership, this has thus far been missing.

He is, however, a powerful unifier, and exudes a genuine love for people and public service. He rises above the race-baiting and hysterics of populist politics, seeking to remind South Africans of their similarities rather than their differences. The major change in the DA’s politics under Maimane, is that it has begun to embrace the social democratic values of the ANC government (i.e. according to Professor Ivor Chipkin), placing a strong emphasis on addressing poverty, providing services, creating employment and so forth. In this, his messaging is very far removed from that of Tony Leon, and is effectively reorienting the DA, bringing it closer to the centre than it has ever been before.

Yet while the DA has paid lip service to social democratic goals under Mmusi Maimane, details of how it seeks to achieve these goals has been scant. When pushed for clarification the DA’s response has consistently been that wherever it has governed people have enjoyed better services, higher levels of employment, etc. This notwithstanding that the DA has mainly governed in the Western Cape and the City of Cape Town, which is hardly representative of the rest of South Africa or its major metropoles, especially in terms of demographics and economics. What Cape Town shares with the rest of the country is that it also ranks among the most unequal cities in the world.

The DA’s messaging in the recent municipal elections held in August, constituted a bold strategy. The DA claimed that were Nelson Mandela alive today, he would be supporting the DA, and that the DA was the only party that still upheld the dream of a non-racial society in South Africa. Combining the message to eradicate poverty with it, and proclaiming support for affirmative action, was an effective way of accessing the trust of black South African voters.  In effect, it served to complete the DA’s political profile as constituting a mirror image of the ANC’s. 

Yet, while the DA performed well, increasing its national percentage by just under 3 per cent (i.e. 2.95 per cent), but even though it earned large portions of the vote in the major metropoles (i.e. the Cape Town, Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan and Tshwane/Pretoria municipalities), only Cape Town was an outright win. That is, the DA's overall improvement was incremental. In reality, the ANC lost mainly due to the abstention of 3.3 million voters, and the votes it lost to the breakaway EFF (i.e. 8.2 per cent nationally, with slightly larger percentages in the metropoles).

The DA is still a long way off from securing the support of black voters, and the poor state of transformation, high levels of inequality, recent racist outbursts on social media by whites – notably by one very senior DA member (Dianne Kohler-Barnard) and an ordinary DA member (Penny Sparrow) – and the casting of the DA as a party that serves white interests (i.e. by the ANC and EFF) have served to reinforce and entrench racial politics.

So it was strange and surprising to see Helen Zille’s twitter post immediately after the municipal election polls closed. In a bizarre turn of events, she tweeted a photograph of a newspaper article in which black student activists proclaimed their love for the University of Cape Town but lamented their plight as “drops in the ocean”. In her tweet, she suggested that their funding be withdrawn, implying that they were ungrateful recipients of it and that the funding would be better allocated to those who ‘wanted’ to be at the university. As the inevitable twitter storm grew, she dug her heels in deeper and attempted to debate with what appeared to be entire twitterverse that black twitter inhabits.

She changed her argument along the way, stating that she was merely pointing out the contradictions inherent in the student’s position, and that her view was that if they were not happy they should leave. When a female 40 plus employee of the university objected, she was told that she could leave too; revealing a startling lack of judgement and sensitivity on the part of Zille. The university employee replied that she was ashamed to have just voted for the DA. 

This sentiment was widely shared.  Helen Zille’s position on transformation and affirmative action (i.e. ‘if you don’t like it you can leave’) – to many – smacked of precisely the reactionary venom that Tony Leon regularly espoused, at length, and even white DA supporters were soon calling on her to quit twitter, for the sake of the party. Rightly, many viewed alienating young black youth as a disastrous strategy that would negatively impact Mmusi Maimane’s leadership of the party. It is not the first time that Zille has been criticized for transgressing the DA's social media policy.

Yet all attempts, even ones that sought to placate and convince her with gentle reasoning, were met with blunt rejection and avid reiteration of her position. Her blanket characterisation of all the criticism that was directed at her was that it was “manufactured outrage”. It seemed that the irony of inverting Chomsky’s “Manufacturing Consent”, for the purposes of persecuting young black student activists, was lost on her. The Democratic Alliance Student Organisation (DASO) distanced itself from her comments, and she seemed unaware (or not to care) that they were directly involved and active in the #FeesMustFall protests that captured the South African public imagination towards the end of last year.

Many people who had voted DA got onto twitter to state that they felt tricked, and were now ashamed that they had chosen to vote for the DA. Yet Helen Zille was undeterred. A few days later, in a speech at a Women's Day breakfast at the District Six museum in Cape Town, she proposed that free education be provided only to female matriculants (i.e. high school graduates) who had not claimed child welfare, stating that it would probably not be considered constitutional only because it prejudiced men.

The great irony of denying young mothers and their children an education they desperately need and desire, and placing the weight of that burden on poor families who in all likelihood would not be able to bear it, was entirely lost on her.  She viewed her policy proposal as an incentive, while in reality it was a punitive policy that punished young mothers for falling pregnant, denying them equal rights in the process. That the proposal would be vigorously contested by civil society purely because it discriminated against women, escaped her sensibilities entirely.

It was a twitter circus show that puzzled many a journalist, observer and spectator (journalist Nikolaus Bauer tweeted whether she only felt relevant on twitter these days). It appeared that she was drawing a great deal of attention to herself precisely in the critical moment that the new black leader, who had so successfully rallied support in the local elections, should be enjoying public and media attention and should be seen as firmly at the helm of the party. Instead, her twitter circus sent two messages; (1) that she still needed to hog the limelight despite the fact that there was a new leader, and/or (2) that she remained the real backseat driver behind the machinations of the DA.

What was most strange about these outbursts, however, was not how bad the timing was, or how poorly it reflected on the DA’s own transformation plan. Transformation efforts in South Africa have often failed dismally due to tokenism and fronting; a practise where a likeable black person is recruited by predominantly white companies purely to serve as digestible black faces and mouthpieces for companies that in reality are run from behind the scenes by whites. It seemed strange, that having spent so much time in politics, Helen Zille would not be aware of how her comments would be interpreted by the electorate (i.e. both those who had voted DA and those whom the DA still needs to attract). But Zille's retort was simply that it was only the "critical race theorists" who took issue with her and that they were, in any event, "the polar opposite of DA supporters".

There is one other possible explanation for her behaviour, however, and it is that Helen Zille is in fact deeply uncomfortable with the drift of the DA towards the centre, and its adoption of social democratic rhetoric. Perhaps she no longer has as much say over the direction that the DA has taken as she had before, and has decided to do something about it. From the outside, it appears that with her twitter followers numbering almost a million, that she is appealing to the sentiments of the conservative core of the DA, in effect raising her very own “tea party” caucus within the DA. This caucus, should they become loud enough, could theoretically act as an echo-chamber for her policy positions, exerting pressure on the current DA leadership to move back to the right of centre.

The danger in this strategy, of course, is evident in the collapse of the Republican party in the US, where what began as a tea-party caucus has evolved into a venue for the expression of the most racist and intolerant isolationist and separatist rhetoric, yielding Donald Trump as its deranged and outrageous candidate as the frontrunner and presidential nominee. That is, for the DA, raising such a caucus would result in a serious identity crisis, and it is not entirely clear that the party would survive it.

There are many changes that Mmusi Maimane still needs to introduce to the DA’s most conservative white core, to which they need to be gently introduced and convinced. They will not take lightly to a DA that promotes affirmative action and supports redress. They may feel uncomfortable with the DA leadership and membership undergoing the dramatic racial transformation that it needs to in order to be taken seriously by black voters. They may not support a welfare-economics based approach towards poverty eradication and alleviation. Indeed, they may come to feel that they are losing their last bastion of resistance to the imperatives of black politics in South Africa.

Many older DA supporters, like Helen Zille, are products of the Thatcher-Reagan era and are entirely unaware that the 2008 financial collapse spelt the end of that ideology as a global project. In their unchanging close-knit worlds and private realms, well enclosed from broader South Africa, everything appears the same, and global events, and changes in discourse (i.e. whether economic, political or social) just don’t register. For them, all this talk about black lives matter, privilege, neoliberalism and so forth are just the rantings of a youth who don’t understand “how things really work”. They fail to see a global wave of change that is set to sweep the modalities of the late 20th Century away. They live parochial existences, and maintaining the status quo lies at the heart of their intentions.

Yet South Africa is a young democracy that is set to undergo many more changes before it stabilises as a political project. More of the same, is likely to entrench existing inequalities and deepen poverty and social problems. More of the same is clearly not an option. That is clearly why the voters have opted to send a message of no confidence to the once much-loved and respected ANC. A move back towards right of centre would likely prove disastrous for the DA.

Yet here’s the rub. The ANC may not be executing its vision and mandate, but South African voters know what the ANC stands for and should be doing. That is why 3.3 million voters decided to abstain instead of voting for the opposition, and why the black “protest vote” mainly goes to the EFF (who espouse the politics of the old ANC). When it comes to the DA, however, while its rhetoric is warm and fuzzy, and simulates the “rainbow nation” euphoria of the mid 1990s, there is a distinct unease when it comes to knowing exactly what it stands for.

Black voters may not express their dissatisfaction in these words, but their levels of suspicion towards the DA speaks volumes. It is in this context that the danger that Helen Zille’s ill-advised actions should be understood; it gives the impression of a divided DA, a DA that speaks with a forked tongue. And while the DA leadership has not come to her defence, they have not yet strongly decried her comments and distanced themselves from them (with the exception of DASO). In this, they are mirroring the unconscionable support the ANC shows for its president Jacob Zuma. Helen Zille’s antics have not gone un-noticed, and should she continue along her current route (which she seems set to), it may spell trouble for the DA in the next national election. In politics, a few years is a long time.

Yet it is not just Helen Zille who thoughtlessly espouses neoconservative Thatcherite rhetoric while claiming to be liberal. Herman Mashaba – the DA mayoral candidate for Johannesburg – is a self-confessed avid capitalist, businessman (he founded the “Black Like Me” range) and unabashed Donald Trump supporter. His political knowledge is scant, and his political message incoherent and appears to amount to a few rehearsed lines that the DA’s PR machine has whipped up for him (much like Trump). Like Zille, he wandered considerably off message during the election campaign and a special team had to be flown up to reign him in.

In exchange for the EFF’s votes for mayoral candidate, the EFF requested that the DA request that Mashaba retract his nomination for Mayor of Johannesburg but it is unclear whether Mashaba intends to fall on his sword for the sake of local government in Johannesburg, the most important metro in the country by far.  And as has proved typical of both Zille and Mashaba, he stated in an interview with Jeremy Maggs on ENCA last night that he didn’t understand why the ultra-radical left EFF had a problem with him. “We want the same things,” he said, citing the need to deny the ANC its patronage networks in Johannesburg, alleviate poverty and so forth. What is telling, is that he did not seem to understand that the EFF differed fundamentally on how to go about realising those aspirations. That is, he didn’t actually understand the politics that he stood for, nor did he understand theirs. In comparison to the well-informed, erudite, progressive and articulate Parks Tau, the ANC mayor of Johannesburg, he is without doubt an absolute buffoon.

And so the time has come for the DA to clear up the confusion. In the run-up to the national elections in 2019 the DA needs to put forward a clear political vision and make its stand, not just on issues of interest, but for the political project it believes in and will commit to. It is the only major political party in the South African political spectrum that still does not have a clear, distinctive political vision. The danger in that is self-evident; you cannot be all things to all people, you have to take a position in politics and voters need to understand clearly what that position is. At the extreme end of comparison, it is worth remembering that both the colonialists and the Nazi’s were good administrators. Their enduring legacy, however, is a result of their politics. And so it is with this pressing desire for clarity that the South African public needs to ask;

“Will the real DA please stand up?”

***Note: First published on 18 August 2016; thereafter lightly edited.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Elections 2016: The Simple Choice - Unity!

This year’s local elections are set to commence in two days. This Wednesday’s election has the potential to lead to serious upheaval within the ruling African National Congress. President Jacob Zuma’s presidency has been an embattled one, once lurching from scandal to scandal, now limping from injury to injury.

His political survival has largely relied on the loyalty of his supporters within the ANC ruling elite, who have been strategically deployed to different ministerial and other government and institutional positions of power. With their political survival being heavily reliant on his continued leadership, they have rallied to his defence every time he has faced criticism from the media, Chapter Nine institutions such as the Public Protector and the judiciary, as well as a throng of very senior ANC leaders who fought the struggle against Apartheid. At local level, many communities are extremely angry with the ANC, as lack of service delivery, corruption, patronage, nepotism, power struggles, political assassinations, and unrepentant incompetence have set in.

Most recently, former deputy president and one-time interim president Kgalema Motlanthe decried the state of affairs within the ANC, labelling its politics a “race to the bottom”, lacking adequate leadership and internally corrupted and fragmented (in his words “the structures are in a sense bogus structures”). His main criticisms were that the ANC was relying on its overwhelming support (i.e. “numbers”) rather than “superior argument”, and was selective in its adherence to constitutionality.

No matter where one resides in the South African political spectrum, these comments, made just days before the local elections, are an indication of the deeply problematic politics the ANC has descended into. This is bound to have significant implications for the country as a whole. The ‘safe’, traditional post-1994 choice has squandered its mandate, and if the recent IPSOS polls are correct, the ANC may face significant threat in at least two of the country’s major metropoles.

Yet there is more. The ANC’s racial rhetoric and polarisation of the electorate – which characterised the previous national election in 2011 – has intensified in the run-up to the 2016 local elections. President Jacob Zuma has led the charge, labelling the main opposition (the Democratic Alliance) as mainly constituted of white National Party ex-supporters of Apartheid who are using their black leader Mmusi Maimane as a token leader to fool black voters and win back power for the white elite and middle classes. “We will not be ruled by the offspring of Apartheid”, he recently stated, and to labelled the DA an “apartheid snake”. To ensure that his message was clear, he stated that “a snake is poisonous and only gives birth to another snake”.

The reality, however, is that the DA’s history stems from the progressives in the white apartheid era government and not the nationalists. When the National Party dissolved,it merged with the ANC; a fact that the President would likely be loath to admit.

In turn, the DA’s election campaign narrative has – paradoxically – consisted of the claim that they are the true bearers of Nelson Mandela’s legacy, and that the ANC of today have long abandoned the vision that Nelson Mandela held of a multi-racial “rainbow nation” that was strengthened by its diversity. The black leader of the DA, Mmusi Maimane, is a worthy ‘rhetoritician’ who speaks many different languages, is married to a white woman, and easily traverses the class and racial boundaries that prevail in the ‘new’ South Africa.

Yet the DA as a party is thin on actual policy; the most that can be said of the DA’s policy is that it is a replication of the ANC’s. The distinguishing features: while the ANC’s is slightly left of centre, the DA is largely right of centre. The question of how right of centre they actually are has not been adequately communicated in their vision (i.e. whether national or local) for South Africa. Instead, their promise is to implement the ANC’s policies better than the ANC, and with less corruption, patronage and nepotism. Good governance is essentially their main proposition.

However, another key distinguishing factor in the ‘new’ DA is that it does not engage in the politics of race, whether subtle or blatant. The DA of old was extremely critical of the new black government of the time, and the many, often verbose, put-downs and protestations that were regurgitated at every opportunity by its old leader Tony Leon, gave many black South Africans the impression that the DA espoused a diluted form of racism i.e. they essentially viewed black South Africans as incapable of governing successfully. Indeed, even Thabo Mbeki responded in anger with accusations (directed towards the opposition and white controlled media of the time) to this effect.

Tony Leon, in particular, was every inch the disgruntled, privileged white middle class ‘contrarion’ who would sound off at any opportunity about how bad everything in the country was under the ANC, and how terrible the future would be under them. He was extremely unlikeable to most black South Africans, an annoying reminder of how white South Africans viewed black South Africans, and the liberties they assumed in addressing them as inferiors. The DA’s future really began when Helen Zille became the party leader, and made a concerted effort to broaden the party’s grassroots reach into black communities, as well as to diversify the DA’s leadership.

Yet the DA has not been without its problems. Recently, in a throwback to an Apartheid past, a DA councillor – Dianne Kohler Barnard – waxed lyrical on Facebook about how much better the country was under the much hated Apartheid era leader PW Botha. She apologised and faced disciplinary action from the party, but the damage was difficult to undo. Many black South Africans are still wary of the DA, despite its new black leadership. The view that the DA has elected black leaders merely so that they can act as ‘Trojan horse’ to turn the black electorate in favour of white capital and the white middle class still prevails.

The lack of a clear political vision that distinguishes the DA from the ANC, is particularly relevant in this context, as the DA is widely viewed as a party that is not “pro-poor”, and who govern according to neoliberal and neoconservative principles to the detriment of the poor, whose legacy of suffering under Apartheid has continued into the new South Africa. The main benefactors of the DA’s leadership is viewed as the white middle class, whose main interest is in maintaining the status quo that affords them their relatively comfortable existences.

The new kids on the block – the Economic Freedom Fighters – essentially consist of the breakaway group that left the ANC Youth League when it’s then firebrand leader Julius Malema was expelled from the party and cast out into the political wilderness. The EFF has enlivened and rejuvenated parliament, and through a series of guerrilla politics tactics (including rampant filibustering and being regularly thrown out of parliament), and brought parliamentary politics to the forefront of the public’s attention.

The EFF espouses a mix of quasi Marxist-Leninist and black consciousness ideas that don’t mix very well. Their central developmental messages are; (1) the expropriation of land without compensation, and (2) the nationalisation of the mining sector. The EFF has captured the anger of the marginalised and excluded in South Africa, and especially the black youth who encounter myriad barriers to entry into the South African economy and its institutions.

In the past few days, however, the EFF was embroiled in a racist scandal that has no doubt raised the eyebrows of many within the South African public. The EFF Tshwane candidate councillor Thabo Mabotja was disqualified by the Independent Electoral Commission for tweeting, “all white people must be hacked and killed”. While the EFF distanced itself from the Mabotja, they failed to act with the decisiveness and clarity that would be expected in such circumstances. Julius Malema stated that the only reason action was taken so quickly by the IEC was because the comment was concerned with white South Africans. Notwithstanding this unfortunate turn of events, the EFF still enjoys support and popularity. Just recently they met with the ex-President of the Republic and the ANC, Thabo Mbeki, in what appears to be an unsubtle rebuke to the Zuma presidency.

Yet racialized politics has re-infected the South African political spectrum in the post-euphoric comedown of the early “rainbow nation” phase of the new South African democratic dispensation. The political racial polarisation has come against a background of widespread public outrage at a great number of racist incidents that have been captured and widely shared on social media. These have mainly consisted of white racists ranting at black people with wild abandon.

Twenty two years after the end of Apartheid, these incidents have understandably enraged a great portion of the black citizenry, and embarrassed and exposed the apologist white middle class who for many years held the position that accusations of anti-black racism were overblown and disproportionate (read: black people were just too sensitive and couldn’t take criticism). The re-emergence of racial rhetoric as a primary medium of communication in the South African political domain should come as no surprise. The widespread denial of systemic racism by white South Africans flew in the face of the lived experience of black South Africans for more than two decades after the end of Apartheid.

The proverbial “chickens” have come home to roost and it’s not pretty. With the ANC and the EFF deploying racial rhetoric as central to their political messaging, there is a very real threat of socio-political fragmentation and instability. South Africa threatens to become a country divided once again; this time not by Apartheid laws and legislation, but by the divisive politics of race in a country that still struggles to out-run its Apartheid history.

In this political climate, the choice of who to vote for is more challenging, yet more important than ever. The pressure to retreat into traditional camps is high, and tolerance for dissenting and divergent views is low. Polarisation, whether based on ideology, religion, race, ethnicity or creed, tends to pull further towards its own extremes before it begins to correct (that is, if it ultimately ever does). In a country such as South Africa, which is a melting pot of peoples and cultures with diverse ancestral lines, and which remains a destination for migrants and refugees from across the continent and many other parts of the world, the prospect of a politics of division bodes ill for the nation state as a whole.

No amount of ideology can dampen the disastrous effects that a divided society wreaks upon itself. Merely voting along ideological lines in this election is quite literally to bury one’s head in the sand. Voting along racial lines, in turn, only serves to reinforce the Apartheid divisions that South African society has inherited and its reproduction may yet result in far more calamitous damage than has as yet unfolded in this new democracy. It is tough place for the South African voter to be in.

And so, the only reasonable vote, in this environment, is a vote that is cast for a local candidate (and/or party) that espouses unity above all else, including party politics. Unity in diversity, unity in struggle, unity in suffering, unity in victory, and unity in defeat. The only vote that has meaning, in the current context, is one that seeks to bring people together, to help them understand each other better and to bridge the vast chasm that divides them. That is what I believe the majority of South Africans desire deeply within their hearts.

This desire is not mere sentiment. It is born from decades of suffering under colonial and Apartheid regimes that exploited fear to divide and conquer the various peoples who live and settled in South Africa. It is born from first-hand experience of the near-breakdown of society in the 1980s and the threat of civil war. It is born from a simple desire to live in a society that is caring and which takes care of everyone within it; one that affords dignity and opportunity to all its people no matter what their race, social status or creed is. The essence of this desire is captured well in the egalitarian constitution of South Africa. There is a reason why our constitution is what it is; it seeks to ensure that we never embark upon the path of division and hate again. In the current political climate, it is the only principle worth casting a vote for, and if there is no party or local candidate who can make a stand for it, then it is not worth voting at all!

Note: While the emphasis on local elections usually amounts to administrative considerations (services, accountability, transparency etc.) it is clear that the campaign is being viewed as a surrogate for the next national election (especially by opposition politicians, but also within the ANC, as a poor showing may result in the recall of the sitting president). In this light, I felt it more honest to focus on the broader trends in national politics (which admittedly is unfolding at the cost of local politics), than purely on local issues.