David Blair: Has South Africa moved away from politics based on race?

By David Blair comment

A man passes an African National Congress, ANC, political poster, right, in the township of Khayelitsha on the outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa. Photo / AP
A man passes an African National Congress, ANC, political poster, right, in the township of Khayelitsha on the outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa. Photo / AP

COMMENT:

One by one, the skittles have fallen.

In the past, South Africa's dominant party, the African National Congress (ANC), held a vice-like grip on power in all of the country's big cities, with the sole exception of Cape Town.

But in the electoral earthquake that has just shaken South Africa, the ANC has been punished in its urban strongholds.

Before this round of local elections, opinion polls predicted that the ANC were in peril in the commercial capital Johannesburg, and the political capital Pretoria, as well as Nelson Mandela Bay, an area that includes Port Elizabeth, the capital of the great man's home province.

As it turns out, the polls were broadly right: the opposition have indeed broken the ANC's grip on all of those places.

Most telling of all was the result in Nelson Mandela Bay. An area which is 85 per cent non-white, where the ANC vote used to be unassailable, has just elected a white mayor from the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA).

There are two ways of looking at the ANC's worst electoral performance since the advent of democracy in South Africa.

You might conclude that President Jacob Zuma's excesses are so egregious and the country so badly governed that nothing could stop voters from punishing a corrupt and self-serving ruling party.

But how about the alternative and altogether more upbeat view? South Africa is entering the world of genuinely competitive politics for the first time in its democratic history.

In the past, most South Africans cast their votes according to their skin colour rather than their beliefs. If you were black, you supported the ANC; everyone else backed the DA or another opposition party.

This meant that the ANC's hegemony was guaranteed for the simple reason that South Africa is 80 per cent black.

No matter how well or badly the party performed in office - or how much public money its leaders squandered - the ANC could be certain of staying in power simply because of the racial balance of the country.

And it could rely on black support thanks to its history as the party that broke the chains of apartheid and brought liberation.

To the extent that such an era ever existed, the latest elections have brought down the curtain.

Black voters have shown their willingness to punish the ANC and Zuma for their performance in power and turn to the opposition instead. Put simply, South African politics, once poisoned by racial polarisation, is actually becoming healthy and normal.

No doubt this transition is helped by the fact that - for the first time - the main opposition leaders are all black.

Mmusi Maimane, the leader of the DA, attacks the ANC from a centrist and liberal perspective. Julius Malema, the youthful firebrand who leads the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), provides the radical left-wing alternative.

Messrs Malema and Maimane, who are barely half the age of Zuma, have combined to take votes away from the ANC at both ends of the political spectrum. In other words, South Africa has a proper democracy where the ruling party must defend itself from attack from left and right.

But this raises the most delicate and important question of all. How will the ANC respond to this new era of competitive politics?

President Jacob Zuma, attends the declaration announcement of the municipal elections in Pretoria, South Africa. Photo / AP
President Jacob Zuma, attends the declaration announcement of the municipal elections in Pretoria, South Africa. Photo / AP

Elsewhere in Africa, the parallels are not encouraging. It was the birth of a new opposition party that genuinely threatened his grip on power that led Robert Mugabe to resort to terror and repression to hold power in Zimbabwe.

Privately, opposition politicians in South Africa talk of a split in the ANC between "populists" and "constitutionalists".

The latter will accept the rigours of competitive politics, including the possibility that one day the ANC might lose power in a national election. The former are very different: they would follow the Mugabe route and do whatever is necessary to hold on to the privileges of office.

After the latest election, Cyril Ramaphosa, the deputy president, responded in a way that exemplified the best tradition of the ANC.

The voters "think that we are arrogant, they think that we are self-centred, they think that we are self-serving," he said. "I'd like to dispute all of that and say we are a listening organisation."

Wise words indeed. But does Ramaphosa speak for all of the ANC?

- Daily Telegraph UK

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