Over the last 150 days we have learned much about the power of the habitual in post-millennial, post-apartheid South Africa. We have heard it in the grumbling, cavilling, quarrelling and grousing about the logic (or lack of) of government decrees. We have also seen it in the defiance of logic among the many bourgeois folks who mistook their entitlement for rights, whether to go running, do yoga on the beach, surf, get takeaway coffees, or to purchase items subjected to restricted trade… We saw it in the contradictory messages relayed by official government channels, in the conflict between some experts advising government, between government officials and such experts, and in the ways in which opposition parties contradicted themselves as they opposed government proclamations.
Over the weekend I published a post about the pitfalls of the one party dominant democracy in South Africa, arguing that unless the economy collapses or alternative centres of power are established in some municipalities and some provinces the electoral dominance of the ANC (and the concomitant control over state resources that it provides) will assist the ANC to remain in power for many years to come – even if it fails to govern well and even if it does not fundamentally improve the lives of the majority of citizens.
I also pointed out that in almost all one party dominant democracies, corruption, nepotism and maladministration becomes an ever increasing problem. It is therefore in the interest of all South Africans that civil society groups and social movements are strengthened and that the space they have to operated is protected and even expanded. It is also in the interest of all South Africans (and arguably even in the interest of ANC, who will be forced to govern better) for a credible opposition party to emerge in whom at least a sizeable number of black voters will be able to put their trust. Such a party might then take control of some municipalities and provinces, breaking the ANC’s monopoly on state power and with it the ability of the ANC to monopolise state resources.
At the moment there is no such a party in South Africa. There has been many (completely misguided) predictions about the ANC disintegrating or of Cosatu or the SACP breaking away from the ANC to form a centre left party to compete with an ANC who has increasingly drifted rightwards on social issues and on issues relating to gender equality, religious freedom, political tolerance and the “national question”. Because of the power and the access to resources that comes with incumbency this is not going to happen any time soon.
That leaves us with the DA, who has managed to consolidate its support amongst conservative white and coloured voters but has not made any meaningful progress in attracting the vote of black Africans. I suspect in the medium to long term, it will not manage to do the latter. There are several reasons for this.
In a racially divided society like ours, which is still beset by racism and racial discrimination and the faultiness of race, it is never going to be easy to convince both a sizeable group of black Africans and the vast majority of white voters to vote for the same party. Given the fact that middle and upper middle class whites have benefited economically over the past 15 years (with lower taxes and far better opportunities to make money than was possible in the last 15 years of apartheid), they have little incentive to move out of their racial laager to embrace a truly non-racial ethic. Life is just about good enough to allow them to complain and moan without having to do anything that will take them out of their comfort zone.
This laager mentality has been exacerbated by very high crime levels and, even more importantly, by the perception of the majority of middle and upper middle class whites that crime is out of control, that the government is not doing anything about it and that because they are white they are under siege by black South Africans who want to steal their cars and TV’s and perhaps kill them. Around braaivleis fires – even in relatively “polite” society – these anxieties (often fuelled by an unexamined and latent racism) are often expressed in coded terms: “Have you heard ‘they’ robbed the bank, ‘they’ stabbed Mary, ‘they’ came into her house and just took the gun and the TV. This is what ‘they’ do in this new South Africa.”
Having gained so much after the fall of apartheid and thus having so much more to lose, but never having been forced to confront either the demons of their own complicity in our apartheid past or their lingering racial prejudices and sense of racial superiority, the vast majority of DA voters are in no mood to embrace non-racialism – at least not a non-racialism in which they do not call the shots and cannot dictate what is said and what is believed. (Going to Soweto, flashing around R100 notes and buying some Blue Bull good will, that kind of non-racialism they can do, because it does not really challenge the power of whites to dominate, and neither does it challenge their ” right” to say how the world is and ought to be.)
Given these realities, if the DA actually decided to take decisive (symbolic and more tangible) steps to attract black African voters, it will probably alienate the vast majority of its core constituency.
That is why the DA city council in Cape Town has just announced another process (two previous attempts were abandoned) to deal with the possible renaming of streets and other places in the city. The proposed terms of reference are rather telling. The proposal (which was not written by someone with a good grasp of language and is difficult to understand) states that names that may be considered for change if they are:
in areas, streets or places where there are no names or with existing names such as Sixth Street or First Avenue, and which provide an opportunity of names to be applied; which improve the City‟s administration and ability to deliver services or which are essential to safety and security in the community; in the case of an extraordinary event or physical development in the life of Cape Town and where it would be appropriate to remember it in a significant way.
Nothing is said about changing offensive names which celebrate the apartheid era. Maybe traditional DA voters will be too upset if the city changes street names which were named after HF Verwoerd, Oswald Pirow; JBM Hertzog or Jip de Jager. I suspect that is why the previous process was abandoned – it recommended that some offensive names (but obviously not offensive to upper middle class racist whites) be changed, so the proposals were shelved and a new process started.
It seems to me the DA is in a very difficult position. Assuming that it really wants to attract black African voters and assuming further that it has some understanding of the sensibilities of the majority of citizens who have suffered under apartheid and continue to feel economically and socially marginalised, DA leaders must know that it has to choose between the certainty of gaining 15% of the votes (mostly from white and coloured voters) on the one hand, or the chance of gaining new votes from the majority while losing a large chunk of that 15% of the votes who now vote for it because Helen Zille is “a classy lady who is giving the blacks hell”.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not claiming everyone who votes for the DA has these attitudes. I am, however, claiming that a large proportion of DA voters have not yet confronted the issue of racism head-on.
I might be wrong, but it is against this background that I think one should interpret the rather perplexing and seemingly counter-productive response of the DA-led city council (seemingly remote controlled by Helen Zille) to the Makhaza toilet scandal. If it wanted to salvage the situation and if it really was serious about sending a signal to black African voters that it was a credible alternative to the ANC, the city would have apologised immediately and would have admitted that it had made a terrible mistake.
It would have sent someone to try and find open toilets provided by an ANC municipality and would have taken pictures of this which it would have distributed to the media. Then it would have found the money somewhere (maybe that R4 million just allocated to baboon monitoring in leafy suburbs) and would have built proper toilets for the residents, inviting ETV and the SABC to film every move. Helen Zille would then have arrived to apologise again in person and would have told the residents (but really the TV cameras) that the DA has just demonstrated not only that it really cares but that it is also fundamentally different and better than the ANC.
Then it would have announced a comprehensive plan (with time lines and completion dates) to provide every household in Cape Town with a proper toilet. Zille would have made speeches about the need for rich residents to contribute more to help to make the lives of poor residents better so that we can all live in peace and can make sure that Julius and his thugs do not gain any influence in our city.
But I guess this would have not played well with many of the DA’s core constituency. Once the ANC Youth League had gotten involved, an apology would have been perceived as a sop to Julius Malema and would have been like a red rag to a bull for any self-respecting ex-Nat who now supports Helen Zille enthusiastically and donates money and time to the party. The Youth League was very clever by breaking down those makeshift partitions: it made it impossible for the DA to do the right thing without losing its fire-and-brimstone take-no-prisoners image amongst right wing white voters. Julius had once again been the tactical winner.
As I see it the Makhaza toilet saga demonstrates rather well why the DA will not increase its votes amongst black African voters. When forced to choose, it will choose to pander to the prejudices and fears of white voters, rather than doing the risky (but right) thing by going for the vote of the majority.
So, that leaves my hope with Cosatu and the social movements. Not that I believe Cosatu will break away from the ANC or leave the Alliance anytime soon. Not, even, that I agree with everything that Cosatu does or what it stands for (after all, it acts in the interest of workers – meaning people with jobs – so it cannot really accept any measures that would assist the 40% of he population that are unemployed). But in the absence of a credible opposition, the opposition provided by Cosatu INSIDE the ANC seems far more effective than anything the whining, professional victims, in the DA can muster.BACK TO TOP