The South African political landscape is characterised by a radical, dangerous and essentially undemocratic populist and venal left epitomised by the EFF, which was spawned by a broadly nationalist, essentially socialist and kleptocratic ANC, a plethora of smaller parties that champion the rights of selective minorities, tribal and religious groupings, populist upstarts on the ostensible right of the spectrum and the official opposition (the DA, with more than 20% of the electorate’s votes) which is home to a collection of social democrats, liberals, conservatives, pragmatists and some who, lamentably, have more in common with the racial nationalism espoused by the ANC and EFF.
The burning question is how can the DA, as the opposition with the most heft, grow both its organic and adjacent vote, and fashion a coalition that will unseat the command-and-control kleptocrats and their fellow travellers, and deliver a polity that is more efficient, considerably less corrupt and that will deliver much-needed economic growth?
To answer this question, one has to examine both the offering and the composition of the voter environment. Values and principles apart, the average South African voter, at one level, is an amalgam that reflects a deep religious conservatism; an often aspirational desire for both flashy and fundamental wealth, and a clinging to the conflicting mythologies of both liberation and colonialism.
The classical divides of class are less evident with a labour aristocracy that has tied its fortunes to the ruling party and a communist party that has disproportionate historical leverage over the alliance consisting of organised labour, the ANC and itself.
The combination has found expression in a labour protectionist polity, underpinned by racial transformation of the economy and fed by the wholesale theft of national resources. All this, while unemployment has grown relentlessly and is now at record levels.
Certain elements of the white electorate have turned to the racially selective haven of the Freedom Front Plus. Indians are largely given to supporting the DA along with many coloured people who resent the short shrift they have received from the ANC. The mass of black voters continue to support the ANC, albeit in dwindling numbers – with some votes collared by the DA, others by the EFF, the IFP and the likes of the AIC on a tribal ticket.
It is unfortunately plain that race and myth are the overarching determinants – somewhat understandably given our fractured past – and that any segmentation, predicated on an understanding of beliefs, context and desired voter action, would be dominated by these considerations.
Absent a perverse lever of the kind used by Narendra Modi’s BJP in India, and which the likes of Herman Mashaba hope to capitalise on (but thankfully has no or little base), which exploits ethnic divides and a form of populism in the hopes of securing a majority, the viable communication of an alternative to shift the allegiances of the bulk of voters remains elusive.
Voting is a habit and habits are hard to break, especially when governed by the self-interest of those complicit in a system of patronage and others who aspire to being part of it as the only way out of their unenviable situation. Add to this the trump card of race and an accompanying hand of myths and you have the makings of a flush – for now.
The wild card is, of course, the significant chunk of young voters who remain alienated, disinterested and otherwise occupied. Their natural inclination is to cut across racial divides and they are more open to questioning the myths that are peddled.
A targeted focus in this regard – given their levels of alienation, unemployment, general dissatisfaction and aspiration – would pay significant voter dividends and the channel of mobile telephony and impactful social media interaction provides a handy tool.
The youth would be open to a message that ties their post-apartheid aspirations to an offering that prioritises jobs, prosperity and harmony in a qualitatively new mould – free of the past and focused on the future, and this is where values and principles need to be directed.
It has historically been the youth of parties that has fired the imagination of a new cohort and changed the perceptions of the old. The challenge and opportunity is to ensure that they are onside with the essential values and principles. This requires both communication and engagement.
These need to be based unambiguously on liberty, freedom, prosperity, economic growth and opportunity. Voters need to be weaned off paltry handouts and be given sight of prospective hand-ups on to the ladder of opportunity. This is where policy around education and the fostering of an innovative environment for jobs becomes key.
This is where role models come into play – across the board, across countries and across race – who share, live and reap the offerings of an open opportunity society. This is where the DA comes into play, contrary to the pronouncements of the pundits.
This is where intellectual icons like Thomas Sowell, musicians and the fashionistas of ideas come into play. It’s about the world, not just the limited locality – that’s how you capture the imagination of the youth.
There’s much that’s sexy, liberal and sound out there – it’s fluid and can be fashioned. Now is the time. The youth are open to ideas. They are not necessarily conventionally conservative; they are potentially radical, and radicalism is an often under-recognised element of liberalism – and conservatism for that matter.
The failure of democratic liberalism to capture the imagination of the electorate in the 21st century has led to a populist conservatism that draws on the alt-right and that has brought Trump, Brexit, Le Pen in France and the AfD in Germany to the fore.
How wonderful would it be if the DA could buck this trend in the most challenging of environments that momentarily allows the left equivalent of the right on the extremes of the political horseshoe to hold sway?
That would be a tonic of note to counter the various challenges and assaults from both extremes – a vaccine against the virus in the time of Covid when authoritarianism with a pernicious agenda is on the up. DM