Many people were surprised on Tuesday that the Democratic Alliance’s march to Cosatu House was dominated by black people rather than the party’s traditional constituency of liberal white people. It is a sign that race politics in South Africa is changing, a phenomenon which the ruling ANC appears not to be responsive to. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
Exactly a year ago this week, then ANC Youth League president Julius Malema was addressing an estimated 90,000 strong crowd at the ANC’s Siyanqoba rally which rounded up the party’s local government election campaign. Malema told the rally, in the presence of the entire ANC leadership: “The DA is for whites and not for you.”
Nobody called him to order and none of the leaders who spoke after him, including President Jacob Zuma, sought to reject the notion that the race card was an acceptable campaign tool. It suited the ANC then to allow Malema to demonise and discredit the Democratic Alliance ahead of the elections.
A week before that, Malema told a crowd in Kimberley, again sharing a platform with Zuma, that white people should be treated as “criminals” for “stealing” land from black people. “We must take the land without paying. They took our land without paying. Once we agree they stole our land, we can agree they are criminals and must be treated as such,” he said.
It was among a series of distasteful statements Malema has uttered during his leadership of the league for which he never faced any form of sanction, a one of many factors which created the impression that minorities in South Africa are “soft-targets”, and why some white, Indian and coloured people who had previously voted for and supported the ANC are now politically homeless.
Voting patterns during national and local government elections show that the ANC has progressively declining support among minority groups. Despite the party discussing “The National Question” – ANC parlance for the race debate – at all its national conferences post-liberation, it appears to be clueless as to how to win back lost support and draw new voters from minority groups.
This past weekend, the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal put issue of the party’s declining support among whites, coloureds and Indians on the agenda for the ANC’s national conference in Mangaung in December. The province resolved that there was a need to “accelerate programmes of recruitment in these areas”.
The ANC’s national general council in 2010 also discussed this issue with secretary general Gwede Mantashe telling delegates: “We would love 50% of white South Africans to vote for the ANC to fulfil our dream of becoming a truly non-racial party.”
Mantashe said the ANC needed to develop a more home-grown approach to win the support of coloured and Indian communities.
He told the bemused delegates that the party had won a ward in Agulhas in the Western Cape by recruiting a fisherman as its representative. “We got a fisherman to be a candidate and every time I went to a meet with him he was mumbling something,” said Mantashe.
“I couldn't understand him, but the fishermen in the area understood him perfectly. The point is we have to have people in those communities who can speak to those communities.”
It is clear from this statement that the said candidate did not win the ward by articulating ANC policy or through the calibre of his leadership but merely by being a token candidate whom his people identified with.
It was an incredibly ill-considered statement and offensive to South Africa’s non-racial and nation building project. The ANC has fought a gallant struggle to abolish racism and racial oppression in the country and still campaigns for the “creation of a united, non-racial, non-sexist and democratic society”.
But it is sentiments such as Mantashe’s and Malema’s that have been alienating rational thinking people of all race groups from the party.
While officially the ANC still advocates for a non-racial society and calls itself the home for all races, it has done little over the past decade to build racial harmony. It also has been somewhat absent from racial flare-ups in society, as was evident by its silence on the recent uproar over racially offensive tweets by two young women.
Instead, the DA’s national spokesman Mmusi Maimane saw the opportunity for an easy PR coup and claimed the credit for smoothing over the ruffled feathers.
The ANC however seems not to recognise that such incidents tap into a suppressed racial frictions prevalent throughout South African society. Its failure to provide leadership or to respond adequately when race issues are on the national agenda has exposed the party’s current superficial approach to racial politics.
This is also evident from it’s the way the party is now attempting to woo white Afrikaners. Earlier this month, the ANC’s senior leaders met with a group of Afrikaans-speaking opinion makers, academics, church leaders and representatives from cultural organisations to find out why the community feels alienated from the ruling party.
If it was still truly a non-racial party nurturing race relations in the country, the ANC would have had its own network of representatives active in all minority communities who could tap into prevailing sentiment and provide feedback on problem areas. Instead, the ANC had to rely on such top-down consultations to find out what’s going wrong and why it is not drawing support from minorities at the polls.
At the DA’s march to Cosatu’s headquarters on Tuesday to hand over a memorandum on the proposed youth wage subsidy, it surprised many people to see only a handful of white people among the sea of black DA supporters.
While Cosatu leaders allege this was a rent-a-crowd, and Zwelinzima Vavi claiming the DA “used uninformed black people as human shields”, it is clear that the DA’s work in black communities is starting to pay off. While the DA is still unable to attract mass support in traditionally black townships, it is steadily attracting support in the black middle class and youth.
The ANC is however not making adequate attempts to keep up with these shifting sands of race politics in the country. As part of its mass recruitment drive, the ruling party has placed all its focus on its traditional support base of black African people.
While nobody realistically expects a Mandela-style charm offensive to nurse minorities, the ANC has to re-establish meaningful contact in all race groups if it wants to keep the nation-building project alive. In the year of Mangaung, that need is all to obvious. DM
Photo: South African President Jacob Zuma (L) and Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe take a salute before his State of the Nation address at Parliament in Cape Town, February 9, 2012. Zuma on Thursday promised to keep the country's powerful mining sector "globally competitive", the latest comment from a senior government official to knock down the prospects of nationalising the mines. REUTERS/Schalk van Zuydam/Pool.