Against all odds, speculation and hype to the contrary, the Democratic Alliance successfully defended its councillor position in Johannesburg’s Ward 58 this week. Although the margin was a slender 290 votes, the success refreshes speculation of the waning influence of the ANC among minority voters. Where did it go wrong for the ANC?
Ward 58, consisting of Fordsburg, Mayfair, Mayfair West, Crown North, Homestead Park, Langlaagte, Pageview, Vrededorp, Jan Hofmeyer, Vredepark, Burgersdorp and Amalgam, is described as an “Indian” ward. The common sense that has persuaded South African politics since 1994 dictates that an Indian ward in Gauteng is ANC country: There are too many intricately woven connections to someone’s uncle in government and an abiding faith in the ANC. Sure, we’ve had to find new, inventive ways to dodge the taxman, but our homes were not snatched away by grubby Communist hands.
And for that, most of us have been deeply grateful.
Yet the local elections last year saw Mayfair turned to the DA side of the City Council. And Mayfair was not an anomaly. Further south in Lenasia, another stronghold of us brown folk, three of four wards were won by the DA.
Analysts, clever people, as our president would call them, told us it pointed to a growing trend of minorities losing patience with the ANC. After one too many corruption scandals and parlous service delivery, loyalty to the ANC had dwindled. Invocations of the heroism of the ANC for rescuing us from the bad, old days meant little when the city’s billing system doles out mayhem with alarming regularity.
ANC candidate Muhammad Cajee may have been the best candidate on that ballot paper on Wednesday. He certainly seemed ready to roll up his sleeves and get stuck in cleaning the place up. And in case he fouled up, residents could report him to his mum before they did the ANC. He implored residents not to treat the election as a national referendum on the popularity of the ANC. He admitted the weaknesses of previous ANC councillors and promised to do better. He even had a plan to go with it. He offered himself to the service of the community.
“This is the ward I live in… Mr. Cajee drives a Mercedes Benz, and he wants to be the ward councillor for Fietas? I am a full force ANC, but they forget about my vote…” Mayfair resident Abu Rumaanah commented last week.
And that is exactly what lost Cajee and the ANC the election.
At a time when the ANC and its alliance partners are battling to bridge the social distance between the elites in power and the people, the ANC, Cajee and his Mercedes Benz were fundamentally unable to bridge the social distance between him and the poorest voters in the ward. And while Cajee certainly did put his Mercedes to good use, answering the call of a disabled voter in Fietas who required transport to the polling station, his emphasis on middle-class voters was his doing.
In Fietas, where poor white people live a world apart from the middle-class Indians in neighbouring Mayfair, Cajee was irrelevant.
And yes, it may well be a race issue. Poor white people are just not going to be voting for the ANC. But then there were as well poor black people – homeless, jobless black people who voted DA as well.
It was in Fietas that Cajee and the ANC lost this by-election.
The ward itself is a complex amalgamation of commercial, residential and industrial areas. Home to a curious mix of races, religions and nationalities Mayfair may have been an “Indian area” 18 years ago, but it certainly is not anymore.
Fietas aside, the other poor people of the ward, residents of an informal settlement in Mayfair West were also not a major focal point of this by-election. This election was about the concerns of a middle class. It was about the comfort of the middle class. It was about keeping them happy on nicely tarred roads.
This election ought to be understood as more than just an Indian minority stating its political loyalty in the great morass of South African politics. The DA fielded two Muslim candidates in the last two elections. Both candidates embraced the visual signs of their Muslim identity; former councillor Zaytoon Waja wore a hijab in campaign posters, and newly elected councillor Osman Cassiem had a very visible beard. The DA was appealing to the voters to trust their candidates. Look at them. They look like you. They are one of your own.
But here’s the thing.
It may have been a community fed up with the ANC that voted the DA in last year. This year however, that same Indian community showed little appetite for these elections. With turnout at half of what it was last year, few people seemed to care who ran their wards. When I asked my cousins whether they had voted, two replied they would vote after sunset. Another replied that he was not even registered. And like him, with an avowed disinterest in the by-election, thousands of people opted to stay away.
I don’t think residents in this ward have ever quite felt so important to political parties. The DA was particularly good at telephoning people, reminding them about the election and asking for their vote. Even on Wednesday as polling stations saw only a trickle of people pitching up to vote DA activists knocked on doors, imploring people to come out and vote.
Still, that middle class Indian vote just didn’t come out to vote in any significant numbers. As one befuddled resident put it, “Apathy was the real winner.”
At Saleh’s Bakery on Church Street in Mayfair, Uncle Ayoob, chief baker and corrupter of diets, was disgusted by the poor turnout in the by-election. “These Indians better not complain now,” he said.
Uncle Ayoob, like many other Mayfair residents, saw in Cajee a real chance to uplift the community from squalor. Few people however actually believed in him enough to disrupt their routines to cast a vote. It was too much trouble and they couldn’t really be bothered. Not anymore. DM
Khadija peddles words on street corners, in polite company she's known as a journalist. Words are her only defence against impending doom, old age and iniquity - spurring her interest in what language tells us about where we are from, what we are doing and where we are headed. Don't mind the headscarf, she don't need no liberation.
Watermelons were originally cultivated in Africa.