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27 October 2003

Don’t mention the race factor

At the polls, most black South Africans will vote again for the ANC. But is this a vote in their own

By Bryan Rostron

At least there will be one area of consensus in the forth- coming general election in South Africa. All the parties (even the parliamentary Afrikaner right) will be avow-edly “non-racial”. Yet one of the main issues, whether voiced openly or not, will be race.

Skin colour remains a potent factor, possibly still the main one, in determining political allegiance. So the most engrossing aspect will be whether this time round the ballot – likely to be next April, to coincide with the tenth anniversary of our multiracial democracy – will amount to more than what one commentator has called a racial census.

Since political parties of all hues compete to be “non-racial”, bitter accusations of racism frequently fly, the fury and rancour often revealing still unresolved, deep hurts. This, however, regularly obscures the real problems. An ill-tempered spat between President Mbeki and the leader of the opposition, Tony Leon, for example, gives a clue to the rudiments of racial electioneering that are likely to surface. In parliament, the acerbic Leon accused Thabo Mbeki of moving “from the politics of the rainbow nation and reconciliation to the politics of race-labelling and race-baiting”. Mbeki, incensed, replied: “Between me and some of my white compatriots there is a great divide, a chasm, on the issue of racism . . . They do not like any reference to the issue of racism, perhaps because they want to forget the past. On the other hand, we neither want to nor will forget the past.”

Both, in a sense, are correct. Mbeki has ratcheted up the racial ante. Some see this as a ploy to distract his large, increasingly poor, black constituency from the fact that, having embraced a neoliberal fiscal policy, the position of the African National Congress (ANC) on the economy is now not so different from the middle-class, corporate-friendly pitch of the mostly white Democratic Alliance (DA). On the other hand, every time Leon opens his mouth he sounds like a smug, unapologetic beneficiary of apartheid who (like so many whites) has experienced “a steep forgetting curve”.

However, the acrimony between Mbeki and Leon, followed avidly by their supporters, disguises the reality that in broad economic terms they are remarkably close. Playing on race, explicitly or covertly, remains the easiest way in our colour-obsessed society to stress differences and marshal followers. Both exploit this racial element.

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The notoriously thin-skinned Mbeki is quick to label opponents racist . . . and the president’s great folly, his ongoing denial of the reality of HIV/Aids, can probably be traced to a curiously defensive view that the disease is a myth, perpetuated by white people’s stereotype of “the African”. Meanwhile the DA, in past elections, has stooped to swart gevaar (“black peril”) scare tactics. Most blacks see the DA as confrontational and reactionary.

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Thus differences of style, tradition and pigment threaten to cloak increasing “free market” policy similarities. Recently the trade and industry minister, Alec Erwin (a leading member of the South African Communist Party), rose in parliament to defend Cyril Ramaphosa, a former union boss-turned-tycoon, from DA taunts of being a “fat cat”. It is a measure of the confusion in our national debate, wrote one business editor, “when a member of the Communist Party finds himself defending someone’s right to riches against attack from a party that has always represented the rich”.

In such confused terrain, accusations and countercharges of racism are one sure way of establishing “clear blue (or black or white) water” between competing parties.

It is a certainty that the ANC will win the election overwhelmingly, while the DA will remain the official opposition – though no more of a real threat to the government than, say, the Liberal Democrats present to Labour in Britain. (In June 1999, the ANC took 66 per cent of the vote; the two parties that formed the DA the following month – the Democratic and the National Parties – won 17 per cent.) The majority of ANC voters will be black, while doubtless most DA voters will, again, be white or “coloured”. The real irony of such stark racial divisions, however, is that these party loyalties no longer truly reflect class or sectional interests – and even, nearly a decade into multiracial democracy, increasingly contradict them. Voting here, in this sense, remains as often as not a statement of personal identity.

Is it really in the interests of a prosperous white business person to vote against the ANC? Strident complaints are made about excessive red tape, minimum wages, affirmative action and the slow pace of privatisation. Yet when asked what they think would happen in our vastly unequal society if the policies currently promoted by the ANC – lower corporation taxes, public union wage restraint – were applied by a (paler) government run by the DA and led by Tony Leon, there is stunned silence. Incessant apartheid-era riots, is almost certainly the answer.

“What’s really changed in your life since the end of apartheid?” I sometimes ask suburban mulungus (whites) after another knee-jerk anti-ANC diatribe. “Who benefits most from ANC policies – you or the unemployed still living in shacks in the townships?”

One toxic hangover from apartheid is that, among liberals and conservatives, white identity remains commonly enveloped in a sense of privilege and exclusion. An aura of ownership and entitlement still oozes from many whites. Yet paradoxically, while their lives and wealth have in no way been disrupted, most mulungus now feel vulnerable, even threatened. A common response is emigration – even internalised emigration, too. A leading British academic recently told me how shocked he was to discover how many top English-speaking South African executives openly admitted to being totally baffled by the new dispensation and, beyond furthering their own careers, were content to retreat behind high suburban walls.

The extent to which the ANC is perceived to be coupled with black interests cuts across the race divide. In the valley where I live outside Cape Town it was assumed, not only in the wealthy white community but also in the nearby poor “informal settlement”, that simply because I am frequently in the Imizamo Yethu area I must be a member of the ANC (“or the Communist Party?” queried our local DA councillor).

While there will certainly be an increase in the stay-away vote in black townships, most black voters will turn out to support “the party of liberation”. But for all its enduring and emotive bond with the “black masses”, it is also reasonable to ask if the ANC now really represents the interests of the black majority: the poor and unemployed.

Mbeki has in the past invoked Disraeli’s “two nations” dictum to draw a clear distinction between rich whites and poor blacks. This is a distinction the ANC will be ramming home, especially in the townships, as the election approaches. Yet how true, ten years after our first election, is this picture?

Last month, the authoritative Human Sciences Research Council delivered a State of the Nation: South Africa 2003-2004 report which judged that, in pursuing neoliberal policies, the government has widened the split into privileged and poor: a black and white elite against poor blacks. The latter are not benefiting from ANC policies, the report concluded; the poor will remain poor, “as presently constituted”.

The election will be full of passion, sometimes hate and bile. You have only to listen to political debate, informal or in parliament, to recognise that criticism regularly hits a raw nerve; it is felt as a denigration of the person themselves, their way of life, their very identity. One reason poor blacks in the townships will continue to vote ANC is that there is no credible alternative. Black parties to the left have imploded. Some day, the ANC’s official allies, the trade union congress (Cosatu) and the Communist Party, will break away to form a worker-based opposition. But for now, after being thoroughly vilified as “ultra leftists” by Mbeki, both have swung obediently back into line.

The elite (one-third of the population, black and white, earning an estimated 89 per cent of the nation’s income) may continue to vote differently, along racial rather than class lines, but at least they can speak the same language. The other two-thirds of South Africans (overwhelmingly black, among whom unemployment stands at more than 40 per cent) continue to face literal exclusion. Only 9 per cent of South Africans speak English as a first language, and just 22 per cent understand it at the level used in parliament. The most recent government-commissioned survey discovered that 49 per cent (rising to more than 60 per cent in rural areas) simply don’t understand speeches in English – but politicians, part of the elite, favour English.

These realities, for powerful historical and emotive reasons, will not be reflected in our tenth-anniversary general election. We are still too stuck in the politics of pigment. Hence we face the astonishing paradox that most South Africans, black or white, may actually be about to vote against their own best interests.