Of watersheds and groundswells

2009-02-28 00:00

One certainty about April’s general election is that despite all the hot air from opposition parties, the African National Congress will be returned to power. Nevertheless, instead of the air of resignation that one might realistically expect among opposition supporters, there is a palpable sense of this election being a watershed.

The ANC is vulnerable for the first time since 1994, when it strolled in with 63% of the vote, against the 22% of the predominantly white and coloured opposition groups. In what emotionally amounted to South Africa’s uhuru election, 12,25 million people voted for the liberation movement turned political party. Although the ANC attained its coveted two-thirds majority two elections later, about 1,5 million fewer people voted for it. The explanation for that anomaly lies in the simultaneous and staggering collapse of the white and coloured opposition — call it the coffee vote — turnout.

Shared in 2004 between three parties — a resurgent DA, the new Independent Democrats, and the New National Party on life support — this had dropped to under 16% of the vote. Whereas 4,3 million of the coffee vote turned out a decade earlier, only 2,4 million did so in 2004.

Anger and apathy were key reasons. The dream of the rainbow nation had been supplanted by the reality of former President Thabo Mbeki’s administration, shot through with bitterness and racial spleen.

Many whites, Indians and coloureds emigrated to where they were embraced for the skills they could contribute. Many more moved inwards, withdrawing from political engagement and social debate.

Now juggle an equation with these elements: On the ANC side, a trend towards voter ennui; hate and fear rampant in its leadership, culminating in a split and the Congress of the People (Cope). Then factor in some fear of power shifting to the Zulu kingdom.

On the combined opposition side of the equation there is an enticing lure — the Democratic Alliance-Independent Democrat collaboration in Cape Town has proved that good governance is possible in Africa. Then there is DA leader Helen Zille.

The coffee vote now has a leader who does not give the discomfiting impression that she would rather be plying her trade somewhere else, maybe London. Black political support for the DA has repeatedly proved to be a chimera but it might be different this time.

Opposition leaders were correct to welcome the establishment of Cope, even though they are now fighting it tooth and nail. It has the capacity, because it comes from within the heart of the liberation movement, to change the face of South Africa’s tired racial paradigm. The most important factor on the opposition side of the equation, however, is not any specific party, but a new optimism.

The victory of Barack Obama in the United States electrified the precariously democratic and wannabe-democratic world. An outsider’s triumph against a supposedly invincible establishment silenced the “what’s-the-point?” brigade. The realisation that ordinary people can still incrementally shape their society by defending values and fighting for ideals has led to a resurgence in political interest.

The Independent Electoral Commission registered far more voters in its recent drives than it expected. There is also a constitutional challenge pending that might allow South Africans abroad to vote.

The Internet buzzes with chain e-mails, urging the disaffected and the disinclined to vote. One, after listing the woes of Nazi Germany and Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe as examples of “baby steps” to authoritarianism, passionately concludes: “When the election comes, vote for anyone except the ANC. You can vote for Vernon Koekemoer or Skippy Peanut Butter for all I care, just as long as no one gets a two-thirds majority.”

Opposition optimism, coupled with ANC supporter disillusionment, might just make this goal achievable.

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