Defend Truth


Are we drawing the wagons into a laager of exclusion?


Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

The relative growth of smaller, special-interest ethnic, racial and religious parties indicates that some South Africans are retreating into identity laagers. This poses a threat to the diversity of our democracy.

Before I go all negative, it is important to note some of the huge positives of the 2019 elections. They were free and fair and without any major incidents. The management and rollout of the elections process must be commended, bar one or two hiccups at some polling stations.

Nonetheless, a job well done by our IEC, another general election that clearly says to the continent and the world that South Africa’s democracy is alive and well and that we have yet again, for the fifth time, changed our president in the past 25 years.

And finally, voting as a right is understood and exercised by our people, hence their varied choices with regard to political parties and affiliations. A pat on the back is indeed well deserved. Let’s not undersell what we have achieved as a country. We have indeed come from a terrible past, into a better, albeit problematic situation. But problematic situations are the stuff of politics and thus far we haven’t done too badly, all things considered.

One lesson coming from this election is that parties have to fear losing power in order to constantly renew and adapt to changing conditions. You have to fear losing to stay accountable. When you get too comfortable in your skins, that’s when you lose elections. And as we’ve now observed, the ANC is much closer to that reality than previously thought.

When looking at the global neoliberal capitalist system, the fear of the outsider (anti-immigrant) is widespread throughout Europe. The old parties of the centre-right and the centre-left that have governed Europe since World War II have been marginalised. Bigotry, racism and xenophobia are on the rise and countries in the West and the Global North are looking inward at the expense of inclusiveness.

One can thus talk of a sequential order that refers to UK Labour and opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, Brexit, US President Donald Trump, and France’s Emmanuel Macron — they are in the same bag of populist insurgency against the old order, and that is happening everywhere. Fascist and ultra-right parties are emerging from the woodwork. So why wouldn’t it happen in South Africa?

A cursory look at the results of this election suggests that the centre is not holding (the centre being the ANC and the DA). It also suggests strongly that in line with global right-wing trends — meaning ultra-right, narrow nationalist and anti-immigrant approaches — we see that in SA, voters too are adhering to inward-looking and protectionist trends.

One may for the sake of argument want to see the big three — EFF, ANC and DA — as representing the left, slightly left-of-centre and right of economics, with each respectively roughly representing socialism, inclusive growth and liberal capitalism.

However, underlying the big three parties are issues of identity and the fear of the outsider, just as in Europe and elsewhere in the world.

The ANC’s inclusive growth reflects its broad nature, encompassing its alliance partners, the SACP and Cosatu, putting the poor and working class at the centre of its pro-poor policies for a prosperous South Africa. The ANC has had non-racialism as a founding principle for many decades. However, under the Zuma administration, there were growing concerns about increasing African nationalism, with a specific focus on Zulu identity.

The DA, on the other hand, has struggled to shake its white party identity. Although its campaign appealed to “one South Africa for all”, this seemed to be an attempt to make racial minorities feel welcome and part of South Africa. It is also noteworthy that the DA is experiencing serious identity issues — it simply cannot decide if it is a majority black party and hence will be alienating its traditional white supporters and members, who as we’ve seen have already begun shifting towards the FF Plus.

In addition, the DA has not resolved its ideological orientation — is it indeed still a liberal party, is it a social-democratic party, or as some have said, is it indeed the ANC-Lite?

The EFF may be branded as black African (with a new Pan African slant, and apparent intolerance of other black minorities), but the party continues to attract young black voters. The question is, will it be able to sustain itself as a sophisticated political party and continue to receive funds to financially maintain the party footprint nationally? It cannot rely on funding from the likes of criminals in the illicit tobacco industry or the VBS bank heist saga.

Already we have seen splintering and infighting. This can only increase once the EFF becomes more involved in actual governance of the state, at municipal level. After all, the proof is in the pudding — once EFF types get their hands on the purse strings of government, will they too be tempted into taking a bite of the poisoned apple?

When one looks across the other smaller parties — those that have managed to secure at least one seat in the National Assembly — we see a similar trend, with citizens increasingly voting according to identity politics. This table shows the growth from 2014 to 2019 in several parties primarily defined by religion, ethnicity or race:




Percent growth
2014 to 2019



104 039

146 262



Al Jama-ah

25 976

31 468





76 830


Christian churches


1 169 259

1 881 521


Black African (not ‘coloured’/Indian)


441 854

588 839


Black Zulu

Freedom Front Plus

165 715

414 864




1 906 843

3 139 784


Total voters

18 402 497

17 436 144


Percentage of all voters

10% 18% 74.00%

Overtly religious parties secured 250,000 votes. All have grown since the last national election.

Parties with clear race/ethnicity appeal (EFF, FF Plus, IFP) have secured 2.9 million votes. Among these, and often put on either end of a political spectrum, is the EFF (1.8 million) and FF Plus (almost 600,000). These are not, in fact, polar opposites, but the same ideology in different hues, with both sharing intolerance for racial diversity.

As for the IFP and the FF Plus, these are traditional nationalist parties which cater for members who are narrow tribalists and coalesce around culture, language and traditions at the expense of the rest of society.

Looking across all the smaller parties — those that are defined by religion and or by race/ethnicity — we see a significant increase in the proportion of South Africans who have given them their support. Whereas in 2014 these parties represented 10% of our counted votes, in 2019 this had risen to 18%. Nearly one in five South Africans who voted, voted for a party that defines itself primarily by identity.

What we have here seems to be more and stronger laagers forming in the South African electorate. There is a greater polarisation defined by religious and racial/ethnic identity. Much like the laagers of the Great Trek (an encampment formed by a circle of wagons), keeping us inside the circle and them (the others) out, these parties are inward-looking, defining their membership by cultural attributes and not by the battle of ideas. These are the parties that have been growing in the past five years.

They are contrary to the ideals of the South African Constitution which sees South Africa as a melting pot of racial, linguistic and religious identities — unified in our diversity.

This, to me, poses a real threat to our democracy. I see a growth of laager mentalities — inward-looking homogenous groups which are resistant to new ideas, intolerant of difference, and fundamentally conservative.

How to reverse this phenomenon? After all, 25 years later and the massive elephants in the room remain: Race, gender and ethnicity.

We must fight against this in all spheres and walks of life; this must be a sine qua non lest we fail, and this very democracy we hold so dear dissipates. DM


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted