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.