Panel Discussion: Following 2014 General Election, 'Race' Emerges as Fundamental Fault Line in South African Society

30 May 2014

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Following the ANC's robust win at the polls in South Africa's 2014 General Elections, on 22 May 2014, SACSIS and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation hosted a panel discussion to probe the question: "Will the ANC rule until Jesus returns?"

The primary impetus for this question was the fact that the ANC won the 2014 General Election despite its leader being tarnished by major corruption scandals and the party's service delivery record being less than exemplary. Meanwhile South Africa’s racial and economic inequality has also worsened under the ANC’s rule. So what is the ANC’s secret? How does it manage to stay in power despite its poor track record?

Renate Tenbusch, resident director of the Friedrich Ebert South Africa Office (FES) opened the event. Her introductory remarks gave speakers and the audience much to think about in terms of the challenges facing a social democratic vision.

The stellar panel of speakers responded to a set of questions posed by Fazila Farouk, executive director of SACSIS.

• What do the results of the 2014 General Elections say about the quality of South Africa’s democracy?

• Do identity politics play a role in the way that South Africans vote?

• President Zuma’s first term in office was tainted by corruption scandals and an authoritarian state, what can we expect from the Zuma presidency in his second term?

• Team Zuma is likely emboldened by the ANC’s 62% win at the polls. How will this affect the fractured politics of the tripartite alliance and the fragile truce inside Cosatu?

• Are we still likely to see political opposition coming from the left of the ANC in the form of a possible workers’ party or has the opposition pendulum swung back to the right of the ruling party given the DA’s strong showing in this election?

Panellists at this the event were Adam Habib, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand; Jonny Steinberg, lecturer in African Studies at the University of Oxford; Nomboniso Gasa, researcher, analyst and public speaker on gender, politics, leadership and cultural issues; and Steven Friedman, Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Johannesburg.

Summaries of their main presentations follow below with links to podcasts as well as links to the SACSIS You Tube channel, should you just wish to watch selected inputs of individual speakers.

However, a major issue that surfaced in the ensuing discussion was identity politics and the racial fault line in South African society following a question from the floor, “Why don’t white South Africans vote the ANC, despite the fact that they have done very well under its rule?”

Cultural identity politics are important in South Africa responded Steven Friedman. The ANC is regarded in much of the suburban imaginary as a kind of dangerous left wing force, which is going to "one day dump us in some kind of majority rule hell."

Adam Habib agreed that some whites would not vote for the ANC because they fear majority rule. But he felt that there were other concerns such as corruption in the ANC, which prevented whites and others from voting for it. Nevertheless, he also argued that there are some whites that are afraid of the rhetoric of social democracy, which sometimes emanates from the ANC.

According to Habib, there is a large correlation between race and the way that people vote in South Africa.

Similarly, Friedman argued that race is the fundamental fault line in our country. Explaining black urban support for the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) he said, “The angriest people in this country are upwardly mobile black people in the formal sector who think that whites treat them like dirt.”

Correspondingly, Jonny Steinberg said that people's insecurity associated with upward mobility is about being black in a world dominated by whites for many generations.

Adam Habib: “Real Gap in the Electorate Still to the Left of the ANC”

"The ANC will rule until Jesus returns," is something that was articulated by President Zuma, said Habib, as he argued that the statement reflects a level of complacency inside the ruling party.

But Habib also said that despite doing well in this election, it’s worth bearing in mind that the Zuma administration has lost votes in two elections -- in 2009, from about 70% of the vote to 66% of the vote and in 2014, from 66% to 62%.

Habib argued that the fact that the ANC only marginally won in big metropolitan areas should be sending powerful signals to the ruling party because if the party considers itself to be a party of modernity, then these results suggest that it is in trouble. "If you lose the middle class and the big urban areas, then you are exactly in the same place as ZANU-PF was," he said. At the heart of Luthuli House, there is a question about what the Gauteng results mean for the ANC, Habib argued.

Habib also said that he was concerned that the ANC’s National Development Plan (NDP) “ducks” the fundamental question at the heart of the economy -- and that is how to address inequality.

According to Habib, the real gap in the electorate is to the left of the ANC. In his view, the vote for the EFF was not a vote for the left; it was a protest vote. Habib argued that there is still the space for a left party in South Africa, potentially NUMSA’s workers’ party could fill that void, but the danger NUMSA faces is narrowing its focus too much on workers' issues.

During the ensuing discussion, Habib also said that creating a responsive political elite is about giving poor people power. He argued that it requires two-pronged strategy: one aspect being the mobilisation of the poor via social movements, civic actions and so on. The second important thing is to divide political elites. So, for example, it would be important, for NUMSA to contest electoral politics via a political party as well as to mobilise their United Front.

Watch Adam Habib’s individual presentation on the SACSIS You Tube Channel. Listen to a podcast of Habib’s input.

Jonny Steinberg: “ANC Still Dictates the Terms of the Conversation”

Steinberg focused much of his input on the rural electorate. He said that the electoral consequences of Marikana have been minimal for the ANC in rural South Africa. The ANC actually did very well in those rural regions where the slain miners of Marikana originated from, the Transkei. Part of the reason for their success is that the ANC has knitted itself into the every day lives of the people in that part of the world. Because it delivers welfare, it has come to be seen to deliver most forms of upward mobility.

According to Steinberg, the ANC has much of rural and small town South Africa sewn up for the foreseeable future. The ANC is sufficiently ingrained in their world, to keep having a voice in it for a very long time. It has been enormously successful in dictating the terms of the conversation, and in giving authority to its own interpretation of events.

Steinberg contended that he would not be surprised if the ANC got 62% of the vote in the next election (2019) because it has the support of the rural areas and if it recalibrates its relationship with the urban areas, it could do well there too.

Watch Jonny Steinberg’s individual presentation on the SACSIS You Tube Channel. Listen to a podcast of Steinberg’s input.

Nomboniso Gasa: “Quality of Democracy Is Poor in Rural South Africa”

Gasa agreed that as long as the ANC frames the parameters of the conversation in South Africa, they are going to win.

However, she argued that the rural areas ought not to be seen as a homogenous group.

She said that the death of mineworkers had a deeply spiritual impact on the people of rural areas and that the fear that people have of mine related violence manifests itself in different ways in that part of our world.

Gasa said it was immaterial to her whether or not the ANC ruled for the next century. What concerned her was the question of the quality of our democracy under the leadership of the ANC. She argued that the quality of democracy in rural areas was very poor.

Watch Nomboniso Gasa’s individual presentation on the SACSIS You Tube Channel. Listen to a podcast of Gasa’s input.

Steven Friedman: “No Electoral Game Changer in South Africa Without Another Split in the ANC”

Steven Friedman held a slightly different view on the performance of the ANC. He argued that one has to look at “the numbers” and argued that the ANC's decline at the polls could be equated to a slow puncture rather than a full blowout.

But he argued that the ANC was not really in trouble in urban areas because our electoral system is constituency based. For example, in Johannesburg, the ANC vote would have to go down to 35% for it to lose control of the city.

We're not looking at an electoral game changer unless there were to be another split in the ANC, argued Friedman. That would make a real difference. So what is happening inside the ANC is very important at the moment because there are intense factional disputes.

The huge ANC majorities will only come down, if there is another split in the party. All of this tends to suggest that a worker's party of the kind that NUMSA is talking about has considerable potential.

There is room for a real left wing party - not the EFF - but the question remains whether the left within the trade union movement (NUMSA) has the ability to capitalise on this.

Talking about the importance of electoral politics, he argued that it produced, opportunity and leverage, which if used by citizens who are organised could leverage certain effects. For example, the ANC's worry about losing votes before the election was impelling it to start developing a negotiating position on certain economic issues. Is there enough pressure to make it continue now? Friedman said that the ANC has enough reason to be concerned about gradual erosion of support to make some effort to start those social and economic negotiations.

Watch Steven Friedman’s individual presentation on the SACSIS You Tube Channel. Listen to a podcast of Friedman’s input.

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