by Pallo Jordon, Business Day
SINCE 1994, the political party that has studiedly shunned negative campaigning and ad hominem attacks is the African National Congress (ANC). The ANC’s election campaigns have all been based on its political record and as a party in the government.
Yet one regularly encounters opinions that the ANC’s landslide majorities are not the function of rational voter choice but rather an expression of racial solidarity among Africans. The unpronounced, yet implicit, suggestion is that while white, coloured and Indian voters make rational choices, African voters are motivated by racial considerations that have little or nothing to do with reason.
Statistics indicate that, in 1994, African voters made up more than 80% of the electorate. With an 86% voter turnout, if what these opinion makers say was true, the ANC should have walked those elections with a 70% majority. In fact, it won just more than 62% of the votes. Its principal competitor for African votes, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), won 10.5%. It might have fared better had it not engaged in reckless brinksmanship in the preceding months.
The ANC increased its majority at the 1999 elections, but it faced two other parties fishing for votes in the same pond. While the IFP’s share of the vote declined, the new kid on the block, the United Democratic Movement (UDM), won 3.4% of the votes. Combining the IFP and UDM share of the vote, one could conclude the situation remained largely unchanged in that 11.9 % of the voters supported the ANC’s rivals.
Do those figures suggest racial solidarity? Hardly! When the ANC took all nine provinces and its share of the vote rose to 69.9% in 2004, that could have been construed as a demonstration of African racial solidarity except for the fact that the ANC’s majority was visibly improved by the support of coloured voters in the Western Cape.
It is white voters who have voted as a bloc: for the National Party (NP), in 1994. In 1999, a substantial number swung in support of Tony Leon’s Democratic Party (DP), which fought those elections with a thinly disguised appeal to white racial anxieties. Oddly, such voter behaviour is presented as rational choice, not racial solidarity.
Addressing the Liberal International, Helen Zille admitted that her party had made headway only among minorities. Paraphrased: the Democratic Alliance appeals to communities that enjoyed absolute and relative privilege under apartheid.
In 1994, the choice was between the parties associated with apartheid and those that opposed it. It is a matter of record that white voters preferred the party of apartheid. The swing to the DP was in response to the "fight back" slogan that identified the DP as heir to the NP’s mantle — the party of white power and privilege.
The proposition that it is irrational for African voters to withhold support from a party whose entire history was their oppression and repression is laughable. They have, quite sensibly, also withheld support for an ostensibly "liberal" party whose policies are designed to deny them equitable access to socially produced goods and services. The UDM and the five-year-old Congress of the People have dashed the hopes of their supporters. There is no credible evidence of African racial solidarity. Flaky opinions not based on known and knowable facts are referred to as prejudice.
Am I being ultra-sensitive in detecting negative racial stereotyping in such judgments? Clearly, many opinion makers and pundits are displeased with the ANC’s electoral performance. No one contests their right to propagate negative assessments of the governing party, but ascribing unsubstantiated racial solidarity to African voters does not help to make their case. Some will say that African voters continuing to vote for the ANC though it has not fulfilled all its promises is proof of such racial solidarity.
Politics 101 says democratic systems are pluralist, requiring continuing negotiation in society. In that process, concessions and accommodations have to be made. It is only in a totalitarian system that a party can hope to fulfil its electoral mandate to the letter. There are few cases of parties in a democratic environment meeting all the promises in their election manifestos. That being the case, it is hardly surprising that, until now, African voters have backed the ANC, knowing that it might not be able to fulfil every promise. But given its history in the government, they remain confident that it will try.
Those who grew up taking clean water, electrified neighbourhoods and a roof over their heads for granted might regard such matters as of no importance. But, try living just one day without them.
The ANC has not delivered a perfect government and there are significant instances of failure. But the lives of the majority have improved during the past 20 years.