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29 August 2014 21:56 (South Africa)
South Africa

Demography as destiny – South Africa’s politics in the years to come

  • J Brooks Spector
  • South Africa
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What does the future of the ANC share with the future of the Republican Party in America? J. BROOKS SPECTOR argues the answer to that question may well surprise readers.

Many American commentators – along with a growing number of influential Republican Party insiders – have been arguing that Republicans as a political species face a demographic time bomb set to go off within a couple of election cycles – or even sooner – despite their apparent strengths going into the 2014 election. The argument goes something like this: Republican support is strongest in those parts of the country and with those groups whose long-term demographic prospects are dimming - and whose numbers are inexorably shrinking relative to the total population of the country. This is because Republican supporters, increasingly concentrated among the older, white populations of the country’s small towns, farmlands, and peri-urban regions of the South and Midwest, its supporters are slowly losing the demographic foot race in American society to groups who tend to lean toward the Democrats.

In population terms, according to current trends, the percentage of older white Americans, as the majority in the total, will continue to shrink in the face of more youthful, burgeoning black/Hispanic/Asian minority populations. Concurrently, the percentage of Americans living in rural areas and on the increasingly small number of those traditional family farms will continue to shrink further - even beyond its current low level, as the nation becomes an almost entirely urban nation. This will likely contribute further towards an increasingly natural majority for the Democrats.

But even the country’s peri-urban regions, those fast-growing areas beyond the traditional suburban rings around the older core cities (and one of the main reservoirs of remaining Republican voter strength), increasingly are taking on the texture of more traditional urban areas as well, as they become what demographers call ‘edge cities’. Their inhabitants’ tastes and preferences are also coming under relentless seduction of national “brands” – and the universalising of consumer preferences including everything from state-of-the-art IT communications and electronics to Thai cuisine and then even on to Tyler Perry films and urban fashion.

While America’s political eddies are complex, and it is likely more than a few Republicans will still have national political careers in the years ahead – perhaps even a president or two - the long-term trend lines are becoming increasingly clear. Effectively, the Republican support base, its core, is bleeding numbers. The GOP is rooted in an earlier conception of America and one that, over time, is fading. Eventually it will be difficult, if not impossible, to assemble an election majority of voters to elect a president. It will have been overwhelmed by America’s on-going demographic shifts – unless, of course, it changes the very nature of its appeals on questions like immigration.

But does that mean the country is fated, inevitably, to be forever in the palm of the Democratic Party? Not exactly. Parties do shift their positions, but more usually, a new party arises on the basis of issue appeals and supplants an earlier established political party – as with the rise of the Republicans in the 1850s over slavery as a new party, or the Democrats in the 1930s by adopting a new position on social welfare issues in the face of the Great Depression. But this comes in recognition of the changing demographics of the nation at the time.

Historically, this movement to the cities, worldwide, has brought people previously rooted in that rural mindset and an acceptance of traditional hierarchies (that local gentry, the yeoman farmers, a peasantry, and then tenant farmers, serfs or even slaves) and into an environment where those older verities no longer carried nearly as much weight with urban dwellers. The cities, in all their chaos, energy and the sweeping away of the established order, also offered tantalising possibilities for the immigrants to those streets and slums. But beyond the economic or personal circumstances, such urban people have also broken increasingly free from their old political verities as well.

Consider just for a moment the life of South Africa’s own Nelson Mandela. Identified from birth to be the counsellor of a traditional ruler in a rural landscape and thus educated accordingly, at the first feasible moment, he flees the Eastern Cape and heads for Johannesburg where he recreates himself as a “new man”. He makes his own path economically, picks his own spouses rather than the ones that have been identified for him, and he even shucks off the older traditional political allegiances of his class and finds new ones. And even there, once he has a new political home, he sets out a new path – the robust, rebellious ANC Youth League - well beyond the previous dimensions of that genteel, elite structure, the older African National Congress.

Now, consider how that has happened throughout history. New political movements, drawing in now-urban people, freed from their rural lives, have repeatedly risen up in society after society to set out new political paths for themselves. But of course they did not all simply generate new support for what we now would describe as conventional, western-style, liberal democratic views. Sometimes they provided the basis for very different strains of politics – as people rallied to radical, authoritarian, or even fascist-style groups they believed would help right the wrongs they lived with in their new, less predictable urban caldrons.

With this as preamble, now take a closer look at the results of this most recent South African election. In the country’s big cities and surrounding urban areas, while the DA did not claim victory in any province beyond Cape Town, their level of support has continued to grow, election after election, in crucial areas such as the urban centres of Gauteng. At the same time, it also seems that the country’s newest political force, the Economic Freedom Fighters, attracted support in these same urban areas, broadly described, rather than in the deeply rural areas governed by those traditional chief and commoner clientele and patronage relationships.

In fact, the stronger ANC was in a particular region in this election, the more likely that was true for it in a rural (read traditional) area; one where the chiefs can still encourage support through so many subtle - and not so subtle ways. Most analysts now argue that, in this election, the ANC seems to have shed votes to the new EFF (as well as some to the DA in cities), even as it hovered up votes from COPE, the remnant black consciousness parties and the IFP. (And, not to put too fine a point on it, the ANC won nationally with a mandate that was effectively well under 50% of the eligible electorate.)

But, rather like the dilemma of the Republicans in America, demography is beginning to run away from the ANC as well. Especially since the onset of National Party rule and full-blown apartheid institutions in 1948, a key tenet of South Africa’s government had been to artificially limit African migration into the cities – essentially in defiance of worldwide trends towards urbanisation.

Now, of course, the trend is now flowing strongly the other way – towards the cities as fast as people can pack up and move on. For many of them, the dream is still vibrant that a city like Johannesburg is the equivalent of Oz’s Emerald City. Overall, the country is already more than 60% urban – with a trend that shows no sign of reversing itself, despite Jacob Zuma’s insistence in inhabiting his role of president almost as if he were some sort of very large scale rural chief, writ nationally.

In tandem with this movement of people, over time, many of the remaining older, rural loyalties lead to an ANC that has been situating itself as the benevolent benefactor of people through social grants and food packages. This is still particularly true in areas where income-earning possibilities are few. But that will attenuate as urbanites seek out new ways to situate their political loyalties that are relevant to their current concerns. Some – perhaps those whom Zuma has dismissed as over-sophisticated “clever blacks” – will drift further towards the DA or a similar successor party. Others, however, may well throw in their lot with the EFF, or whatever it evolves into, in the months and years to come if its redistributionist agenda gains traction.

But urban dwellers for the most part want something well beyond dependence on a government that offers the food parcel – that’s why they moved to the cities in the first place. Jobs and better economic opportunities are the key for such people with aspirations of upward mobility. Unfortunately, such opportunities remain in short supply and seem to be still largely beyond the grasp of the ANC in its current ideological configuration. And this same transformation of urban South Africans may also contribute significantly to the creation of any new labour party of the left. Such people are not in the deep rural areas, if for no other reason than that is not where unionised labour is.

A good demographer turned political prognosticator, armed with a crystal ball, would likely be compelled to say that unless the ANC ultimately finds a new way to connect with the aspirations of South Africa’s urban voters – those young and restless as well as those who are increasingly comfortable with their stake in the system and a wedge of the pie on their plates – its days as an inevitable majority party that relies upon the loyalties derived from an increasingly distant “golden age” are numbered. But what form any replacement majority would take? Well, that is an entirely different matter. DM

Photo: Ladies prepare to watch the funeral of the late Nelson Mandela nearby at a public viewing point in her home village of Qunu, South Africa, 15 December 2013. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK

  • J Brooks Spector
  • South Africa


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