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The ANC and the battle for the ‘born-frees’

Osiame Molefe is a writer with a keen interest in the space where personal and societal ambitions intersect with technology, politics and economics. That intersect right now, in South Africa, has brought him to observing, researching and writing on racial and gender inequality, and how well, or poorly, dialogue around these issues takes place. His column deals with these and issues tangential. When he is not writing news, analysis and opinion, he reads speculative fiction and writes some, too. Rumour is he single-handedly keeps the South African sparkling wine industry afloat. In a former life, he worked as a chartered accountant in New York, Bermuda and Johannesburg, but has since fled that industry in pursuit of a life less grey. He holds a bachelors degree in accountancy from Rhodes University, but don’t let that fool you into believing he has a head for numbers. He does not.

The ANC has finally woken up to the fact that its ageing traditional support base will very soon no longer determine the outcome of electoral contests in this country. But is it now a case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted and crossed the valley once thought impassable?

Can we have a round of applause for the African National Congress for its transparency over its strategy and tactics? It’s astonishing that in the face of ever-increasing competition, an organisation would continue to reveal information that might give competitors the advantage. You certainly would never see this in the corporate world, nor do any of this country’s political parties provide this level of access to their brain trusts’ view of the political chess board.

Temper the applause. This transparency is a manifestation of the ANC’s belief that it and the movement it champions are not only natural extensions of this country’s democracy, but the only way through which it may be accessed. If this constitutional democracy were the code of computer operating system, the ANC believes its national democratic society to be the user-friendly overlay in which the code is packaged before being sold to consumers. This sword cuts both ways.

It’s the reason why the ANC believes it will rule until the rapture and why its leaders repeat the refrain that it is only through the party that heaven may be glimpsed. This is why, when the country’s democratic institutions resist resolutions and decisions stemming from the ANC’s internal processes, the party views them as counter-revolutionary. But I digress.

In the latest iteration of the transparency, reflected in documents to be discussed at the ANC’s policy conference in June, the party’s brains-trust picks up on something that it has only given a cursory mention to before. The 2014 contest will be the first national election in which the “born-frees” participate. They are the first of the new generation of South Africans born in a country free of apartheid. Critically, this first wave of born-frees – potentially more free than the older generation which held the ANC’s liberation credentials in reverence – come in such numbers that they could upset the political applecart.

Going by StatsSA’s latest mid-year population estimate, almost 6-million South Africans will become eligible to vote for the first time in a national election by 2014. All of these new voters grew up without first-hand experience of apartheid. Using the 76% turnout of the 2009 elections, these new voters could make up more than 20% of the vote by 2014. For context, the Democratic Alliance won 17% of the vote in 2009.

From 2014 onward, the born-frees will come in waves of just over 5-million each national election until they make up nearly half of the voting population by 2029.

Recognising this, the ANC is for the first time asking its members for their thoughts on how the party might co-opt into the movement what it calls the “new generation”. The party has had its eye on the new generation, but is only now talking about what to do about them. Strangely, given that huge demographic shifts such as South Africa will experience in the next 18 years have historically been the tsunamis that sank old, slow-moving organisations, the ANC isn’t discussing the issue with the urgency you’d think it might or ought to. And by the time the party, steered by slow-moving committees, puts a plan in place, it might be too late as the new generation might have already sworn its political allegiance elsewhere.

But luckily for the ANC, how different the born-free generation is in its political outlook as distinct from that of its parents is debateable. For starters, even though born-frees grew up in a politically free South Africa, their lived realities were only marginally different from those of their parents’ who waged the struggle against apartheid. According to an Afrobarometer working paper, the born-free generation shares a number of socialisation factors, including education and day-to-day material circumstance with its parents. DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko alluded to this earlier this year when she accused the ANC of having failed the born-frees. This shows that the ANC’s main rivals are also looking at how to win the hearts and votes of this key demographic.

Most significantly, however, is that the born-frees identify with the ANC at similar levels to generations before, suggesting no waning support, despite what the potential for divergence growing up in a democratic society might have brought.

That said, the dominant political outlook cannot stay the same in the face of the enduring wave of new participants in the democratic process. The world changes, revolutionaries die and the children forget, the Thandiswa Mazwai song goes. It’s a prophetic warning the ANC would do well to heed, or risk being forgotten by this new generation. DM



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