South Africa

Western Cape: A fluid electorate that makes politicians sweat for their vote

By Marianne Thamm 7 May 2014

The Western Cape is viewed as a politically promiscuous province. The ANC, although it has governed the region twice, has never done so with an outright majority. Since 2009 the DA has been victorious and used its experience as a showcase for what it could do in the rest of the country. While the deep divisions and rifts within the Western Cape ANC seemed to have been resolved, political infighting that has dogged the party since 2008 depleted energies that could have been strategically employed to grow support. With no sworn allegiance to any political party the voters of the Western Cape – who are often erroneously viewed as a “coloured block” - always present an opportunity for surprises. By MARIANNE THAMM.

Of course the biggest and most unfathomable surprise for those who had been active during the struggle in the 1980s in Western Cape was the shock announcement after the country’s first democratic elections in 1994 that the National Party had captured the province.

The news was met with disbelief by anyone who had been present at the historic launch (attended by about 15,000 people) of the United Democratic Front (UDF) on the afternoon of 20 August 1983 at the Rocklands Community Centre in Mitchells Plain in the heart of the Cape Flats; or who had participated in the subsequent countless acts of sabotage, huge rallies and thronging marches that took place regularly in the region throughout the 1980s.

The UDF was non-racial and made up of a collective of hundreds of diverse organisations from church groups to trade unions, from women’s groups to civic organisations to students and sports bodies, all united in opposition to Apartheid. And while never formally linked with ANC, the UDF was viewed as a sort of internal wing of the banned liberation movement.

A key figure in all of this was a man who spoke rousingly at the launch of the UDF, Dr Allan Boesak, undoubtedly one of the most influential leaders in the Western Cape at the time.

How did people get it so wrong?

Ryland Fisher, anti-Apartheid activist, journalist, former editor of the Cape Times and author of Race, a collection of interviews with subjects on the matter of race in post-Apartheid South Africa, (and sometimes columnist for Daily Maverick) believes that activists were “carried away” and so caught up in the struggle that the bigger picture was somehow misinterpreted or completely misread.

“I interviewed activist Trevor Oosterwyk who was an ANC organiser in 1994 and he took it personally when the ANC suffered defeat in 1994.  But the point is we were not politicians. We could believe our own publicity and propaganda and sometimes what we believe is very different to what the general populace believes,” Fisher told the Daily Maverick.

And while 15,000 people may have been at the triumphant launch of the UDF (and many came from other parts of the country) there were 550,000 other Capetonians who did not attend, said Fisher.

“And what were those people thinking? In our desire to be non-racial we became black, while our communities remained ‘coloured’. The political education that had taken place among activists had never occurred among the masses of people and part of our desire to be black papered over the issues that forced ‘coloured’ people not to identify with the black majority,” he recalls.

This was a position that the reformed National Party, with FW De Klerk as its leader, had exploited in the early 1990s, having asked for forgiveness for Apartheid and re-establishing its Christian values and roots, which appealed to conservative voters – many who were working class – and who were also baited with fears of competing with ‘Africans’ for resources in the province.

In 2004 the ANC in the Western Cape managed – in coalition, ironically, with the then New National Party – to capture the province, but by 2009 it had lost badly (garnering only 31.5 percent of the vote) to the Democratic Alliance (who captured 51.4).

After that election, ANC stalwart and senior NEC member, Pallo Jordan, called a meeting with influential local leaders including Fisher, Henry Jeffreys, Editor in Chief of the Afrikaans morning paper, Die Burger, Russell Botman, Rector and Vice Chancellor of the University Of Stelllenbosch, as well as activist, academic and former Human Rights Commissioner, Rhoda Kadalie. The meeting took place at the home of academic and former ambassador to the US, Dr Franklin Sonn.

“Jordan was keen to understand what the ANC was ‘getting wrong’ and we all sat there in silence,” Kadalie recalls of the meeting.

As someone who is not known for holding back, it was Kadalie who spoke first.

“I started the discussion by telling Jordan that it was because of the collective negation of our roots as first people, of Autshumato, of our history before and after slavery. It was because of the reduction of that history to the coon carnival and some sort of ‘coloured’ nationalism. I told him that ‘coloured’ people want to be part of history. For all of our history we have been regarded by the epithet ‘coloured’, for that is what it is, an epithet. With the UDF, ‘coloured’ people gave up identity for the collective but after 1994 we are told we are ‘coloured’ again and I am forced into a position that through the UDF I wanted to denounce,” she explained.

Jordan, said Kadalie, was furious and charged that ‘coloured’ people suffered from an inferiority complex and that “you [coloured people] called Nelson Mandela a k*** in 1994”.

Fisher, says Kadalie, rose to her defence and asked Jordan if he had come to listen or whether he had come to debate or argue.

“Marginal people are the most exciting because they have no loyalty and you cannot predict where they will vote and that can be a positive thing,” said Kadalie.

A populace that did not submit, she added, was a positive feature but if that populace is marginalised it can have negative consequences.

“Then there is no sense of belonging,” said Kadalie.

There is, technically speaking, no such thing as a homogenous “coloured” vote or block. There is a diversity of political views – from nationalist to black consciousness to liberal and conservative – variations of class, language, religious persuasion and education and that makes it difficult to find and mine a single, common seam.

Activists in the province, from early roots in the African People’s Organisation, formed in 1902 and lead by Dr Abdurahman Abdullah from 1905 to 1940, to the Non-European Unity Movement of the 1940s to the Black Consciousness movement in the 1970s and the UDF in the 1980s, while dominated by ‘coloured’ leaders, always sought broader alignment with the oppressed African majority. It was also the militant textile worker base in the Western Cape that contributed to the formation of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) in 1985.

So why has the ANC struggled to find greater traction in the province when it appears as if the region’s history would point to greater solidarity and support with the African majority?

To accuse the region’s voters of being “racist” as some have done, or for acting on an internalised atavistic colonial and white supremacist notion of ‘coloured’ identity when voting, removes from political parties the need for any deep introspection as to why support might have dwindled or shifted elsewhere.

The Western Cape ANC’s own internal struggles between so called “Africanist” and ‘coloured’ factions and which have been violent at times, has not helped the party to focus on consolidating support in the region. And the Democratic Alliance, with Patricia De Lille as mayor of Cape Town, has since positioned itself as the contemporary non-racial alternative to the ANC.

In 2009, by the time Pallo Jordan called for a meeting with the region’s leaders, Allan Boesak was no longer a member of ANC. Convicted (critics believe wrongly) in 1999 and jailed in 2000 for two years for misappropriating R400,000 of funds received by his Foundation for Peace and Justice from the Danish organisation Danchurch AID, Boesak was marginalised and frozen out of the party. He received a presidential pardon in 2005 and his record was expunged. In December 2008 he joined COPE but resigned a year later.

According to Boesak, the ANC’s woes in the Western Cape began in the early 1990s as exiles began trickle home to prepare for the advent of democracy and encountered a clash in political leadership styles as well as the ideology and modus operandi of the UDF.

“When the ANC returned from exile they acted as if those political and philosophical battles were not fought, or won. Worse, as if they were of no consequence. Before we knew it, we were once again saddled with the racial terminology of Apartheid. We were once again Coloureds, Whites, Indians. But something had changed, now only black people were ‘Africans’. The rest of us suddenly had to prove we were Africans. Before we knew it we had to prove that we were in the struggle,” Boesak writes in his memoir Running With The Horses – Reflections of An Accidental Politician.

While the UDF was part of the ongoing history of the struggle and would find itself closely allied to the ANC – built on the same foundations i.e. The Freedom Charter – “the ANC was not universally known or loved in all communities. It did not help that the ANC over the years had presented itself so expressly as an ‘African’ organisation, meaning ‘black Africans’ only,” he writes.

The disbandoning of the UDF, writes Boesak, “was a foregone conclusion more important to the exiles than I understood at the time, worked out in secret collusion with well-selected leaders from inside because it had become a threat to the ANC.”

And it is this history that swirls about the polling booths of the Western Cape as voters queue to make their X today.

But is it so that the re-racialisation of South Africa by the ruling party has sent the majority of the 49.6 of Capetonians who are still classified as ‘coloured’ into the arms of the Democratic Alliance?

This may be the case, says Fisher.

“I understand the need for redress and statistics but the pain of the old days when I went to Home Affairs to fill in forms and I refused to fill in the category marked ‘race’ and I wrote 200m is re-enacted still today. Nowadays, I must still fill it in. I still write ‘black’ but I am told ‘you are not black’.”

Still he adds, while the issue of ‘identity’ may be important it is still one that really only consumes the middle class.

“Working class people don’t think about it. They think about food and jobs and how to put food on the table. They will be loyal to whoever provides this. They don’t really care,” said Fisher.

While on the subject of jobs, the recent challenge (and victory) by 10 ‘coloured’ Western Cape correctional services officers of the Department Of Correctional Services implementation of the national rather than regional equity plan, only serves to reinforce the growing perception that ‘coloured’ people in the Western Cape are increasingly being marginalised by the national ANC government.

ANC member and former Western Cape activist, Oscar Van Heerden, who identifies as black, said the claim is not backed up by statistics.

“Like some white people who complain that affirmative action is preventing them from getting jobs, the statistics prove the contrary. In the Western Cape most middle management positions are still occupied by coloured people,” said Van Heerden.

And while Van Heerden understands the “re-racialisation” claim, he is of the opinion “when you come out of a position of a negotiated settlement, you have to reclaim your identity, blacks in general and Africans in particular.”

Van Heerden says that poverty in the Western Cape was not an issue of colour but rather of economic empowerment and that the ANC was attempting to address this.

“When we are poor, we are poor. In rural areas the poor do not see themselves as you are on the one side and I am on the other,” said Van Heerden.

For Kadalie and Fisher as well as Boesak, the reconfiguration of identity away from ‘coloured’ towards a history of First Peoples and slavery would be the start of the creation of a more universal and inclusive South African identity.

“In our quest to be black we overlooked many facets of identity. We did not look at slave identity and the issues that make this up,’ said Fisher.

Boesak writes that the revival of interest in the history of slavery and the ramifications of that history for South Africa is “destined, I predict, to bring a new dimension to the role of these communities are seeking to play in the life of the country today. That is, if they themselves understand this history and want this role in South Africa. The denial of slave history by many in these communities has come to an end and now a new understanding brings new forms of commitment and engagement. The shared sense of history also brings a shared sense of political identity, beyond the forced identity of the ‘coloured’ label in the political vocabulary and social order of South Africa.”

So, wedged between white nationalism of the past and the perceived black nationalism of the present – with many historical currents swirling in between – the people of Cape Town are going are going to mark their ballots today to determine our future for the next five years.

Ultimately, for Fisher this freedom means “we have an election where we are free to vote for whom we want to. I have a friend who is voting DA nationally and ANC provincially. You can do that now. It is a deepening of democracy.” DM

Photo by REUTERS.

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