Elections 2014: The mass angst was worth it

2014-05-09 06:00

These were the elections that threw so many into a state of angst.

Never before in South Africa’s democratic era – and the apartheid era – have so many agonised so much.

In the bad old days you knew what you stood for. You were either for apartheid or against it. If you were white and loved apartheid, you voted for the National Party, the Conservative Party, the Herstigte Nasionale Party or any variations of right-wing formations on the menu. It just depended on how attached you were to your white superiority and the degree to which you despised or hated blacks.

If you were white and liberal you were likely to vote for the Progressive Federal Party or any of its previous incarnations. But if you were white and loathed being associated with “the system” in any way you joined the anti-apartheid forces and stayed away from what was then considered formal political politics.

In the 1980s, if you were Indian or coloured you had an enviable menu selection among the powerless clowns who inhabited the House of Delegates and the House of Representatives. Most people who belonged to these “population groups” – as they were called then – had seen through the sham and wanted no part in it. They played their politics in the resistance space, joining mass democratic movement (MDM) or black consciousness (BC) formations.

If you were African, you could back the Bantustan parties or those plying their trade in the puppet township councils. But you would most likely be found in the MDM, BC or Africanist formations.

Come 1994 and South African politics changed forever. Those who had been involved in, or backed, the MDM and Africanist formations voted accordingly. White voters chose between the Democratic Party and the National Party and most trusted FW de Klerk above the somnolent Zach de Beer.

Only BC supporters were left in the lurch as their party, Azapo, boycotted the first elections.

The patterns remained pretty much the same in subsequent elections with the most notable shifts being the coloured and Indian communities’ drifts to the Democratic Party/Alliance from the 1999 elections onwards. Tony Leon’s brand of muscular opposition ensured that the DA also became the home of the white voter, regardless of the level of liberalism or conservatism. It was the umbrella for minorities who believed they needed to be shielded from the torrential downpour of majority domination.

In 2009, the picture began to change. Jacob Zuma’s election as ANC leader in 2007 and the unceremonious ousting of Thabo Mbeki from the presidency spawned the Congress of the People (Cope).

Cope’s entry into electoral politics in 2009 gave traditional ANC voters pause for thought. Here was a party, led and populated by ANC veterans and activists. It had the same ideology and worshipped the same heroes. More so, many could not identify with the rawness and populism of Zuma’s new ANC. Cope offered a comfortable alternative. More than 1 million of them voted for Cope and they were joined by supporters of other parties who were excited by Cope’s offer of a new beginning.

Most ANC supporters and those of other parties remained loyal. ANC supporters covered Zuma’s face with their fingers as they put their cross next to it on the ballot paper.

The 2014 elections have been very different. Zuma has disappointed those ANC supporters who were once prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. His litany of scandals and gaffes have left them wondering if it is possible to separate the party from its leader, seeing as his corruptible ways have seeped into every level of government.

Having given him five years’ grace, could they live with their consciences if they gave him the mandate to drag the country further down the drain?

On the right of the political spectrum, the DA is beset with a historical conundrum. How does it grow black support without alienating the white core constituency, which has reached a ceiling.

It has played its cards very badly. It has vacillated, shuffled, twisted, turned and performed a thousand acrobatic moves to please existing and potential constituencies. The touchstone issues have been employment equity and land reform, both very close to the two constituencies.

In the process, it has left traditional and potential voters confused. The party says it believes in redress but how far is it willing to go, is the question both constituencies ask for different reasons.

As a result of this vacillation, black voters who were toying with the DA suddenly found themselves looking elsewhere for an alternative. In the Afrikaans community, where employment equity and land reform are key mobilising tools for organisations such as Afriforum, Solidarity and farmers’ unions, the DA’s dance created apprehension.

The emergence of new parties has also added to the voters’ confusion. Mamphela Ramphele’s Agang SA generated significant excitement when it came on to the scene. Like the emergence of Cope in 2009, this was a party seen by potential swing voters across the board as a possible new home. For long-term ANC and DA supporters who wanted a new home, her struggle credentials were an added bonus to her technical abilities, courage and management record. White DA supporters who wanted to support a “safe” black leader also felt comfortable with Agang SA.

So the implosion of the party left many without a home. As did the implosion of Cope, Azapo and the Pan Africanist Congress.

Then came the entry of Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters. Malema was not easy to love but he offered hope and strength for those who wanted to send a strong message to the governing party. Potential voters toyed with the idea of supporting a party led by someone with a recent dodgy past but with lots of courage and leadership qualities. He was a devil we know so rather him to take on the other devils, they reasoned.

In the end, most of these angst-ridden voters would have voted for their traditional party anyway. But oMynly after subjecting themselves, their family and friends to hours of torturous discussion.

The great leap forward in Election 2014 is that South African voters started to think about their choices.

Those who stayed with their parties did so after considering the pros and cons of defecting. Some of their decision-making might have been sentimental and due to misplaced fears and hopes but it was thought through.

Twenty years down the line and in our fifth democratic elections, we seem to have crossed the bridge of automatic voting. We are certainly growing up and the results will be evident in future elections, starting with the 2016 local government elections.

The mass angst was worth it.

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