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South Africa just had its most hopeful elections ever

The 1994 election rubber-stamped liberation. This year’s local elections, though, marked a real break with racial voting

13 August 2016

9:00 AM

13 August 2016

9:00 AM

 Cape Town

South Africa has just seen her most encouraging election results ever. The general election of April 1994, which brought full democracy, was important in itself but its results were a foregone conclusion — the black majority voted for the ANC, as expected. The local elections this month were different and immensely hopeful.

There has been a large vote against the ruling party, the ANC, bringing an end to the great curse of post-colonial Africa under which the people keep voting for the ‘liberation’ party however corrupt and incompetent it is. The ANC still won 54 per cent of the votes, but this is the first time its share has fallen below 60 per cent. President Jacob Zuma has taken a battering, but to his credit — another welcome departure from bad African ways — he has taken it gracefully and without complaint. Nobody has challenged the freedom and fairness of these elections.

Better still, South African voting has ceased to be entirely dictated by race. In any country with strong racial or religious differences, Northern Ireland for instance, people tend to vote accordingly. The official racial composition of South Africa today is as follows. Black African: 81 per cent. Coloured: 9 per cent. White: 8 per cent. Asian: 2 per cent. Until now, a map of voting results has looked like a racial census, with all white and brown people voting one way and all black people another. This has changed. In three of South Africa’s most important cities, Johannesburg, Tshwane (which includes Pretoria) and Nelson Mandela Bay (which includes Port Elizabeth), whites and blacks together voted in large numbers against the ANC.


South Africa has three tiers of government: central, provincial and local. Local government includes municipalities and cities, and it has been a special victim of ANC misrule. The ANC has continued apartheid’s obsession with racial policies, including compulsory race classification. It has instituted ‘affirmative action’, where jobs are given on race rather than merit, and ‘demographic representivity’, where, if 80 per cent of the population is black, 80 per cent of doctors should be black. Of course nobody believes in affirmative action for the services they receive, only for the services other people receive. Black politicians would not dream of sending their children to schools with teachers hired this way; they send them to schools with white teachers. In the municipalities, the ANC replaced white engineers and managers with affirmative-action black ones, often without qualifications and experience, always politically connected and usually relatives or chums. The result has been crumbling local infrastructure and failing water and sewerage systems, sometimes resulting in disease and death. Local black people suffered dreadfully under the ANC’s racial preferences. They have begun to hit back in the voting booths.

The leading opposition party now is the Democratic Alliance. Its origins go back to the time of the gallant Helen Suzman, the sole liberal MP in the apartheid parliaments. In the 1994 general election, it won 1.7 per cent of the vote and was about to be disregarded. But Tony Leon, a tough and forthright liberal, built up its popularity, to a large extent by exposing the failures of the ANC and the feebleness of the other opposition parties. Its fortunes grew under Helen Zille, another strong liberal who became mayor of Cape Town and is now premier of the Western Cape — which she rules efficiently and honestly, as voters elsewhere have noticed. The ANC jeers at the Democratic Alliance as a party of white privilege. Actually most of its supporters and workers are brown, and it is gathering support among blacks. Its new leader is a black man, Mmusi Maimane, a young, glamorous figure somewhat in the mould of Barack Obama. The ANC laughed at him as a flashy tea-boy of the white master. But he has wiped the smiles from their lips in this election, emerging with authority and distinction. The Democratic Alliance won 27 per cent of the vote.

The next biggest opposition party is the Economic Freedom Fighters. It is a breakaway from the ANC — a caricature of an African liberation party led by Julius Malema, a talented loudmouth with gifts of showmanship and organisation. Its policies are Marxist and would produce economic serfdom. Its leaders are rich and bourgeois, fond of BMWs and Johnnie Walker Blue, but they dress for parliament in red overalls to show that they are working-class heroes. The EFF won 8 per cent.

What next for the ANC and President Zuma? The good news is that we can set aside standard African fears of a president who stays for ever and a ruling party that refuses to be voted out. Since democracy in 1994, South Africa has had three presidents (plus one interim one). Nelson Mandela, a great man but a so-so president, stepped down with typical grace after one term. Thabo Mbeki was forced out by party machinations before the end of his second term. There is no prospect that Zuma will continue after his second, and a rising one that he might not finish it.

It is a myth, unfortunately perpetuated by the Democratic Alliance, that the ANC were all saints and saviours until Zuma took over. This is nonsense. In the ‘struggle’ years of the 1980s, the ANC were led by men every bit as immoral and ruthless as Zuma. Since 1994, no ANC government has been particularly clean or competent. Zuma is nothing very different.

ANC politicians will now be taking stock. Each will ask this question: ‘If I want to retain my job and riches, should I support Zuma or oppose him?’ While he is corrupt and incompetent at running the country, Zuma is skilled at running the party machine and in awarding patronage to important people whose support he needs. The stakes are high. For many black people in South Africa, politics is the only possible career and income; if they lose their government job, they become destitute. During this election campaign, at least a dozen ANC candidates for municipal jobs were murdered, almost certainly by other ANC members who wanted the jobs themselves. If there is a plot gathering within the ANC to topple Zuma, it could be dangerous to join it and dangerous not to join it. But the ANC has already lost too much power and support for it to defy the electorate if it were voted out. For this much thanks.

Meanwhile, white Democratic Alliance voters just love Maimane, a black man, as their party leader. Black voters in Port Elizabeth seem to welcome Athol Trollip, a white man, as their new mayor. (He is fluent in Xhosa.) In our cities the black middle classes are forsaking racial politics for the merits and record of the rival parties. This is once again a time of hope in South Africa.

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