South Africa

South Africa

Elections and persistence of memory

Elections and persistence of memory

South Africa is now virtually at the doorstep of the next national and provincial election. As South Africans weigh up how they are planning to make their “X”s on their ballots, J. BROOKS SPECTOR contemplates the meaning of change in predicting the country’s political future.

At first this writer started out to focus on Secretary of State Kerry’s visit to Africa, but the image that kept swimming into view was that of the cinematic Vice President John Nance, played by Ben Kingsley, in that lovely film, Dave. To keep him out of the way while conniving presidential aides substitute a naive doppelganger in place of the president who has just had a major stroke while he was in an assignation, so those aides can effectively take over the government, Nance is sent off on an eleven-country trip to Africa to keep him out of the way as the aides carry out their evil plan. Somehow, a little bit of what Nance’s character felt in the film might well be part of John Kerry’s real feelings while he is on his actual current trip to the continent.

Of course, Kerry’s trip to Ethiopia, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Angola, despite the important, real – and difficult – issues he has been addressing on this trip, might almost seem like something of a relief from his other current labours. For example, just for starters, in his in-tray is the virtual collapse of the Mideast negotiations he was attempting to broker. And then, of course, the situation in the Ukraine now seems fated to bring post-Cold War American-Russian relations to a new low, even as the domestic circumstances of Ukraine continue their inexorable spin out of control. Even with his presence at those African stops, however, there is precious little likelihood Kerry’s trip will help bring the civil strife in South Sudan to an end – or those murderous insurrections in the Congo, for that matter.

Still, the fact this itinerary excluded both Nigeria and South Africa should give the leaders of the region’s number one and number two economies and the continent’s two ostensible main power centres some pause. The fact that a trip by a US secretary of state could avoid both nations simultaneously may well be murmuring something important about the two nations’ real, as opposed to their apparent, hoped for, power and influence on this continent – and the rest of the world’s interest in them. And it may also be saying something important about the “small ball” game the US is increasingly engaged in around the globe – something that seems to extend to the ho-hum way President Obama’s recent East Asia trip was generally received, and the dismissive – or increasingly worried – cover of the current issue of the Economist, what with its headline, “What would America fight for?”

Of course, Nigeria itself has been consumed by the lead-up to this year’s World Economic Forum Africa meeting (it has alternated between South Africa and Nigeria over the years), and that on-going crisis of a mass kidnapping of female students in the north of the country, among a rash of other disruptive events. And South Africa, itself, of course, is in the final days of its current national election campaign. Given this election, it seems virtually nothing else is now on the minds of its leaders – or those who would – futilely – hope to replace them, come 8 May.

And, that, of course, is the real theme for today’s sermon. Why does the outcome for the South African election bear the stamp of such a foreordained outcome? This is especially interesting given a virtual torrent of public (let alone private) criticism of Jacob Zuma’s personal behaviour during his presidency, the rising tide of endemic corruption in the country, the skewing of national spending towards a culture of self-enrichment of the powerful, and an increasing willingness on the part of politicians to nibble at South Africa’s very constitutional order (as is written here).

From the perspective of the ANC’s electoral opponents, has all the rigorous, vociferous, even riotous campaigning really been largely for naught? A broad consensus of political analysts, poll watchers and voter attitude surveys has finally settled on a view that come Wednesday, given a reasonable level of voter turnout, the ANC is most likely to pull down something north of 60% of the vote, the DA will get a shade more than 20%, the EFF perhaps 5% or so, and the remainder will go to the whole rest of that mixed-up mishpocheh of smaller political parties. And this is not all that much different from where we started on this weary road, all those months before.

What this speaks to instead is the rugged persistence of political allegiances, despite more transitory political and economic concerns – or even some seemingly deeper issues. With the advent of the new political system, post-1990, a nation’s deeply held political loyalties were allowed to come out fully into the open. Once the broad support for the United Democratic Front was successfully transplanted onto a now-legal ANC, it became clear that in the first several elections of the country’s all-inclusive political order, the ANC would collect close to two-thirds of the country’s voters, over and over again, in recognition of that party’s central role in the country’s political transformation – and the dominant presence of one Nelson Mandela, even after he was no longer an active political figure. And the DA would gradually begin to collect most of the remaining voters out there, now looking for a way to oppose the ANC.

But should anybody really be surprised by any of this? Take American political history as one way of understanding some of this behaviour. And just perhaps that route can be something of a guide to the future evolution of things in South Africa as well.

Back in 1865, as the Civil War reached its end, African Americans (at least in the northern states) formed their nearly unshakable bond with the Republican Party as voters. That party, of course, was popularly seen as the “Party of Lincoln” and the party of their emancipation and their right to vote. (Of course, African Americans in the South didn’t have quite the same feelings. The number of African Americans in the South who continued to hold onto the voting franchise dropped precipitously once federal troops left the South and the new segregationist governments took charge in those southern states.)

But it took the vast migration northward of blacks from the South, and then the tremendous economic shocks of the Great Depression and the economic promise of Franklin Roosevelt’s candidacy (as well as the subsequent programs of the New Deal and the civil rights plans of Hubert Humphrey and John Kennedy, among others) to change fundamentally the political orientation of virtually all black Americans – and keep them there, right up until the present.

In tandem with that, the civil rights movement that led to the congressionally passed Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and ’65 firmly cemented the allegiance of newly enfranchised black Americans in the South to the national version of the Democratic Party. But that massive shift of new voters to the Democrats as a result of an embrace of civil rights policies also drove a majority of white voters into the waiting arms of the Republican Party, after their brief detour through Governor George Wallace’s starkly segregationist American Independent Party. The story is that when Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, he told aides words to the effect that this new law would guarantee the South was lost to the Democrats for a generation.

Actually, it has accomplished that very thing for over two generations by now. And the thing of it is that while the old arguments over civil rights are now years back in the past, those now older political affiliations have largely continued into the present – and look likely to be fixture for much voting behaviour on into the future. Broadly speaking, the changes of the voting patterns in the South seem largely to have been a result of an influx of newer waves of voters into places like Virginia and Florida, voters who are less emotionally tied to those older battles over civil rights in the South.

Political scientists who study voting behaviour have traditionally argued that if you wanted to be able to predict how a person was going to vote in an election, yes, you wanted to know their religion, their ethnicity, their economic status – but, above all, you asked how their parents voted. Voter preferences were not quite genetic, inherited things, but they were pretty close. A person’s attitudes on politics were formed early on by one’s family, reinforced by a person’s social, religious, ethnic interactions, and economic circumstances.

And these voter preferences – and thus loyalties – often didn’t change even when someone did especially well economically – or even when they switched religions. Over time, the research has indicated that it usually takes a major political and economic earthquake to shake people from their previous political direction – like the Great Depression did in helping create a new Democratic coalition of southern whites, labour and ethnic minorities in the northern part of the nation. These kinds of events have come to be termed “realigning elections”.

Similar political behaviour can be traced, with variations due to national traditions, in many other nations of course. Japan, for example, had almost a half-century of continuous Liberal Democratic Party rule, largely in recognition of popular appreciation for the party’s success in managing the post-war Japanese economic miracle. That became intertwined with entrenched patronage networks and patterns of financial contributions to powerful politicians so as to ensure continued access to power that nearly fifty years of political stewardship produces.

Similar behaviour occurred in West Germany’s usual national stewardship by the Christian Democrats, plus its allies from a separate Bavarian political party and – sometimes – the Free Democrats. This lasted for much of the Cold War period. In Israel, the Labour Party had a near monopoly on political leadership, pretty much until the conquests of the 1967 war and the national political earthquake from the 1973 conflict, the movement to establish settlements in the Palestinian lands and an influx of immigration from Russia seriously changed the national political dynamic.

And what of South Africa? What this may well mean is that it will still take years before the ANC’s familiar legacy of support by virtue of its role in the nation’s political liberation truly begins to fade, despite the commentariat’s constant complaints about the deep flaws of the Zuma era.

But, the big question, of course, is what kind of political or economic tremour will need to happen before elemental shifts in voter preferences occur? Importantly, would such an event move voters who are now detached from their previous preference for the ANC onward onto Democratic Party or somewhere else?

Or, instead, as many on the leftward side of the political spectrum have increasingly convinced themselves, can such a political game changer of a seismic shift drive such now-up-for-grabs voters to a new party of the left that promises economic renewal, greater social and economic equality, and more effective, efficient government? Many analysts (but not DA strategists, of course) seem reasonably clear the DA may have reached its natural limits, having already captured most white, Coloured or Indian voters, as well as an important, but limited, chunk of African voters.

This is because of all those forces noted above – ethnicity, religion, race, economic circumstances and long-time familial loyalty – may continue to hold voters close to the ANC, even with their dissatisfactions. Nevertheless, any real attenuation in such ties will be what is most closely analysed in the days following 7 May, as a way of detecting any harbingers of things to come.

Most especially, analysts will be looking closely at the voting choices at both the provincial and national levels made by those so-called first time voting, born free voters, the emergent black middle class in a place like Gauteng or Cape Town, and any dissolution of Xhosa support for the ANC in the Eastern Cape. This latter would be in the face of what some have taken to calling the increasing “Zulu-ification” of a party once felt to be theirs by right of emotional affiliation, political inheritance and social heritage. Even if the overall results of the impending election already seem to be a foregone conclusion, the thorough evaluation of the fine details of the voting profile of South Africans this year – by age, race, ethnicity, religion, economic circumstances, the urban/rural divide, and all the rest – will provide important raw material for the national debate about the political future of the country. And such analysis may be a warning light for the ANC’s own behaviours and policies for the future, or the green light of business as usual. It is now 48 hours and counting. DM

Photo: Former South African president ,Nelson Mandela (C) smiles as he arrives with African National Congress (ANC) president Jacob Zuma (L) and South Africa’s president Thabo Mbeki at the Loftus stadium in Pretoria during an  rally organised by the ANC to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday August 2, 2008.

REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko


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