Free and fair elections are the hallmark of a functioning multi-party democracy. They give citizens the opportunity to exercise their independent judgement and to determine who should govern the country. A carefully considered vote should decide how the levers of power must be used. When South Africa goes to the polls on 7 May, will voting be based on the real issues and the manifestos of the political leaders, or will the electorate simply fall into its established race and ethnic loyalties?
Based on previous experience in South Africa and other countries, race and ethnicity play a dominant role in voting behaviour.
People feel they can trust their own kind and believe they must support them. It makes them feel safe. Implicit in this belief is the assumption that if I support someone from my own background they will be more inclined to look after me. Loyalty based on race, as much as we would like to believe that it is no longer the defining issue still very much is.
Carlson Anyangwe, Professor of Law and Director at Walter Sisulu University School of Law, published in the International Journal of African Renaissance Studies: Multi-, Inter-and Transdisciplinarity the results of a piece of research which investigated the behaviour of South African voters, using a qualitative analysis of available studies, covering national and provincial elections up to 2011. He found that “[t]he first conclusion is that among the various competing variables influencing voter choice of a particular political party in South African public elections, the race issue, however weak some might suggest it is, still looms large and is a dominant factor despite denials by some researchers…”
Siphokazi Magadla, Security Sector Government Programme consultant, writing for the Institute of Security Studies in 2010, said in a piece entitled “Race and Ethnicity in the Shadows of Opposition Politics in South Africa”, “The ANC continues to enjoy overwhelming support despite concerns about internal dissent, corruption and lack of service delivery. This is because of a pattern of voter behaviour largely influenced by the politics of race and ethnicity.” He went further: “Analysis of the first three democratic elections in South Africa in 1994, 1999 and 2004 predominantly viewed voting behaviour in terms of race and ethnicity.”
The purpose of the vote is to express either approval for the way things are being done, or disapproval. What Magadla’s analysis shows is that even when there is clear disapproval with stated concerns about in-fighting, corruption and poor service delivery, voters will still support the politicians of their race. The vote is viewed more as an indication of solidarity with a race group than as expression of democratic approval or otherwise.
Both race and ethnicity are key determinants of voter behaviour. Using the Wikipedia definitions, race refers to the colour of skin, eyes, hair and overall physical appearance. Ethnicity relates to cultural factors like language, beliefs, nationality, ancestry and culture. Within the wider black race group, most of whom presumably support the ANC, the narrower ethnic groupings of say, the Xhozas on the one hand or the Zulus or Basotho, or Bapedi or Tswana etc. on the other, would prefer different candidates and would, according to the published research, vote accordingly.
The unintelligent and habitual devotion to ethnic loyalties sometimes creates unproductive dissonance in our leadership ranks. It is said that some senior ANC politicians are less likely to be voted into top government jobs because they “lack a constituency”. One assumes that this means although they qualify in racial terms, they don’t have the necessary ethnic credentials. Trevor Manuel and Pravin Gordhan are both excellent leaders whose names been mentioned as ‘outliers’ in this context. At the same time, some appointed leaders who have enjoyed favour because of their tribal and ethnic backgrounds have turned out to have been disastrous mistakes.
Helen Zille and the DA, who try desperately to focus on the real issues of government, are forever trying to rebrand themselves to be more racially acceptable. No matter how she toy-toys and no matter how she allows herself to be abused by manipulative black “friends”, the race issue will continue to obstruct her. In the end, research shows it is about race and ethnicity and not about unfettered leadership.
The old Nationalist government stayed in power for the same reasons. Within the white electorate, the more numerous Afrikaners supported their own kind, even when they disagreed with the performance of the government. And there were similar ethnic divisions between, for example, the “Cape Afrikaners” and the more “verkrampte” Northern tribe as well as between the Verwoerdian segregationists and the more liberal realists.
Long-standing voter loyalties amongst the Democrats and Republicans in the USA, or the Conservatives and Labour in the UK, while mainly within the same race group, must be seen as reflecting different ethnic strains. A critical factor in the election and re-election of Barack Obama were the African American and Hispanic “marginal groups”.
In fact, ethnicity and the conflicts it has given birth to in recent times, is becoming the issue du jour. Judge what is going on between the Russians and the Ukranians, or the Spaniards and the Basques, or the Flemish and the Walloons, not to speak of the Hutus and the Tutsis or North- and South-Sudan and dozens of others.
While all of us profess to abhor racism and believe that we live in non-racial democracies, our voting behaviour shows that this is blatantly not true. Picking the bitter fruits of our under-cover racism and slavish ethnicity, we constantly cry about poor government leadership. But if we are selecting political parties and their leaders based on race and ethnicity instead of the qualities of integrity, sound judgement and selfless leadership of the people, what would we expect? DM
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Johann Redelinghuys is a partner at Heidrick & Struggles the international leadership consulting business, which bought the firm Redelinghuys & Partners of which he was the founder. He has been deeply involved in career management and executive search all his life. He is the chairman of the South African company and now heads up its board practice working with chairmen and CEOs focussed on CEO succession, strategic leadership review and board evaluation.
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