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South Africa’s progressives and the black middle class are wandering in the political wilderness

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Nontobeko Hlela worked as a political science lecturer at the then University of Durban-Westville, as an intelligence officer at the then SASS, and as the First Secretary: Political at the High Commission of South Africa in Nairobi from 2010 to 2014. She currently works as a Researcher for the South African office of the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research, a Global South think-tank with offices in Johannesburg, São Paulo, Buenos Aires and Delhi.

Mass abstentionism in the local government elections reflects political parties’ failure to speak to the aspirations of the electorate. The DA, in particular, has failed to offer a political home to the black middle class and progressives.

According to the Afrobarometer 2021 survey, two-thirds (67%) of South Africans would be willing to give up elections if a non-elected government could provide security, housing, and jobs. This is a frightening statistic given how long people fought for the right to vote, and broader democratic gains, and the monumental sacrifices that were made to realise these aspirations.

The turnout at the 1 November 2021 local government elections could be understood to correlate with this disenchantment with democracy. South Africa has over 42,6 million people eligible to vote. Of those only 26 million are registered to vote and only 12 million actually voted. These numbers dovetail with those of people who would be willing to give up on democracy in exchange for personal and economic security.

However, we should not be too quick to assume that abstentionism is, across the board, a rejection of electoral politics rather than a rejection of the parties currently on the ballot papers.

Although it is almost ubiquitous for commentators to tout the low turnout as voter apathy, the vast scale of collective abstentionism is a result of a poverty of ideas within our political parties. Over 300 political parties stood for the 1 November local elections but not one captured the national imagination.

It is also a repudiation of a political system that is not working to address the aspirations of the majority. And, of course, it is a repudiation of the political leaders in office who have completely failed the people and who seem unable, unwilling and incapable of delivering on the most basic and urgent of needs.

Voters not thinking they can choose differently and vote for another political party other than the one they have normally voted for – in most cases the ANC – can be understood as a symptom of trauma. South Africa suffers from massive collective trauma as a result of our violent and repressive past, which has never been dealt with.

A lot of black people, even educated middle-class people, have an ineradicable fear that voting for a “white party” would see the return of an apartheid-type of governance where black people would again be oppressed.

The DA has failed to recognise this fear and seems to have done everything in its power to rubbish these fears by refusing to acknowledge them and to recognise that race still plays a major role in people’s lives. The DA’s continued rejection of policies like BEE and affirmative action, without offering alternatives that recognise people’s pain and trauma, play into this deeply held fear that white people want to turn back the clock.

This fear is compounded by the way that black leaders from Lindiwe Mazibuko to Mmusi Maimane, Patricia de Lille, Herman Mashaba and Phumzile van Damme have been treated by the party. For many black people, seeing this treatment reinforces their fears. The DA has been massively punished for this at the polls with Herman Mashaba’s new party, ActionSA, and Patricia de Lille’s Good party both taking votes from the DA.

Rather than trying to grow the black vote, the DA has instead tried to focus on the wrong demographic – the conservative Afrikaner vote, where it has no prospects of any real growth. This has seen the DA become more demagogic, sound more anti-black and shift further and further to the right, sometimes even espousing Trumpian ideas and embracing views and positions that would have been anathema to the party a few election seasons ago.

This shift to the right in an attempt to win the conservative Afrikaner vote hasn’t paid off for it as the conservative Afrikaner voters have seen through this expediency and gone back into the FF+ laager, which they see as better representing their views. 

Never has the ANC been so weak, disorganised, beset by internal discord and in such complete disarray. Yet, the DA was unable to capitalise on this. It squandered a massive opportunity in these elections. All the DA had to do was push its message of the technocratic and administrative success it has achieved in the municipalities that it governs. Yet, the DA’s campaigning spoke more about the ANC and ActionSA than its own achievements.

Moreover, the DA seems incapable of not scoring own goals – after the Phoenix debacle, Cliffgate and the lack of contrition following these mishaps, you would be hard pressed to think the DA was not deliberately trying to make black voters, and even liberal and progressive whites, to not vote for it.

A lot of political parties talk progressive politics in this country, with the ANC and EFF getting the most airtime. However, none of them actually live up to their progressive rhetoric. The ANC’s neo-liberal policies in government have been anything but progressive. The EFF wants nothing more than to get its hands on the state coffers for its leaders to live in the lap of luxury. There is no genuine commitment to uplift the lives of the majority.

Most middle-class black people in this country will not vote for the EFF. Most understand that despite its language of being progressive, what it actually stands for is more corruption and kleptocracy, the VBS looting of the most vulnerable in society is a case in point.

The political field is open to a genuinely progressive party. However, none of the small left parties in the South African landscape has so far been able  to capture the imagination of SA voters.

The black middle-class in this country is also screaming out for a political party that represents them and their aspirations. The ANC under Mbeki was that party, however, the toll of the Zuma years and the accompanying anti-intellectualism, the rejection of “clever blacks”, the corruption, breakdown of infrastructure and lack of service delivery has left a major demographic homeless.

The DA under Maimane was becoming that home, but the unholy trio of Natasha Mazzone, John Steenhuisen and Helen Zille put paid to that as they followed a disastrous strategy, which has seen the DA squander the gains that it had made under Maimane.

The field is also wide open for a party that can offer the black middle-class a credible alternative, perhaps that is why Herman Mashaba’s conservative-populist ActionSA has done so well in these elections among the black middle classes, as they feel that they might have finally found a political home. DM

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All Comments 16

  • Great article, thanks. I also wonder how it is that we still don’t have anything vaguely resembling a ‘green party’ – a critical set of interests and threats that affect all levels of South African society

  • Very insightful commentary, Nontobeko! I also agree with Tracy that a party which addresses the climate change emergency as well as the urgent need to support healthy and sustainable food systems would attract wide support from intelligent South Africans of all ethnic backgrounds/

  • The current policy paralysis of the DA is a reflection of the historic and continuing alienation of white English-speaking South Africans from the day-to-day realities of the country, living in a self-satisfied bubble in which they/we are always right.

  • So Herman Mashaba has repeatedly said that he would ban all race-based legislation yet the DA is blamed for not supporting BEE and AA. In a race-obsessed country, race matters. That is all I am hearing.

  • Indeed, clear analysis from Nontobeko of the dilemma facing any South African who is informed and has a social conscience.

    Yes, a ‘Green’ party would be good, though I think it would be short-sighted to brand it a green party in South Africa.

    We need a party that combines commitments to social democracy, deeper democracy and environmental justice.

    All our parties seem to be ideologically stuck in the 1960s. A deep green agenda, that is, one that integrates social justice, cannot gain ground here without a concerted effort to dislodge the hodge-podge of expired neoliberal economic ideas that that dominate both ANC and DA ‘thinking’.

    (The ANC is, if anything, slightly more progressive – but obviously fails horribly on integrity and competence. The DA delivers on integrity and competence and is 60 years behind the times ideologically.)

  • Knew when Maimane resigned the DA were shooting themselves in both feet! Stupid, stupid move and now they stuck with Steenhuisen and Zille. Good luck!

  • I was encouraged to read this article which explains why I feel politically homeless. I did vote in these elections but with very mixed emotions. It helps to know why I’m not alone.

  • Very insightful. The DA’s misdirected strategy pursuit lost me as a member years ago. Interesting how ActionSA support cuts across our demographics!

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