So the elections are done and the dust is settling. All the analyses are flooding in. There seem to be some saying that the ANC did get a bit of a slap losing several percentage points in both the national and the provincial votes. Equally there are many (including Mamphele Ramphele) who are dismayed that despite the litany of crises and scandals that have plagued the ruling party in ever growing frequency over the past 5 years, the ANC remains overwhelmingly the party of choice for most South Africans. In some quarters there are racial undertones suggesting that the ANC’s support is largely ignorant black people who don’t know any better.
I was born in 1975, but a comment made by my mother lead me to read up on a scandal that took place in 1978 that I was only vaguely aware of - The Muldergate Scandal.Back in the early ‘70’s, the government of the day was increasingly paranoid about rising international and national disapproval of the apartheid government and had set up the Department of Information to use propaganda to counter this. The department, headed by Eschel Rhoodie but with approval of many senior government officials, was allocated a sizeable slush fund that was diverted from the defence budget.
Rhoodie used Louis Luyt as a front to try to buy the Rand Daily Mail - an English newspaper that was highly critical of the apartheid government. When this failed, Louis Luyt created a new newspaper - “The Citizen”. There was even an attempt to buy an American Newspaper - “The Washington Star” - to influence American opinion and to undermine American politicians critical of South African policies.
To cut a long story short, this whole debacle ended up costing a fortune and blew up in the government’s face, resulting in several senior ministers losing their posts and Prime Minister BJ Vorster being forced to resign. The point of this relates back to the comment I mentioned earlier. My mother said she remembers that there was great hope amongst those who opposed the National Party (NP) that this was going push voters to make a change. They expected a new era and that the NP would lose ground hugely at the subsequent polls.
This was a time when support was split more along cultural lines as only whites were permitted to vote. In broad terms, Afrikaners supported the NP and English speakers supported the Progressive Federal Party (PFP).
Three years after the Muldergate scandal broke, the NP was returned to power with a relatively small drop in support levels. In 1977, the NP had 64.8% and the PFP had 16.7% of the vote. In 1981, the NP won 56.96% and the PFP had 19.44%. There are distinct echos here - the ruling party with overwhelming support is rocked by scandals but goes to the polls and is returned to power with an overwhelming majority because there were no great alternatives that were palatable.
The Herstigte Nationale Party (HNP) was the party that made inroads into the NP support base. Afrikaners found it hard to support the “rooinekke” of the PFP and those that couldn't support the NP changed to the HNP rather than the PFP.
There are even echos in terms of the apartheid government’s anger and fear of the press’ so called “hate South Africa crusade” which sounds just like the ANC’s rhetoric of the past few years.
There are several important lessons that we can take from this. Firstly, a free press is a vital if you are to keep the government honest and by extension, any attempt to muzzle the press should be seen as an action with distasteful motives. The second is that people (white or black, English, Afrikaans or Xhosa etc) don’t easily change their vote, particularly when the “brand” they support is so very strong.
Thus whether you support the ANC or the FF or any other party, a patriotic South African will oppose the Protection of State Information Bill. It can only lead to more secrecy and cover ups.
In the 1970’s white South Africans picked the devil they knew (NP) or at least a devil with a similar background (HNP). If we want a balance of power, we need strong “black” alternatives to the ANC to arise. People still struggle to see beyond the colour bar and voting IS along colour lines.
Any political party that ignores this reality will struggle.
I think the DA has done very well (particularly when you remember how people won’t change allegiance easily) but unless the DA manages to change the impression in people’s minds that they are predominantly a white party, they will continue to struggle to get grassroots support like the ANC does.
I wonder whether they shouldn’t consider renaming themselves when they appoint their first black party leader (which must happen soon) so they start with a “clean slate”.
The EFF’s strong showing underscores that many voters are looking for alternatives. Their policies make little sense and their leader has a dubious track record; yet as a black party with a high profile, they did get a lot of support.
There are many ANC supporters that are somewhat unsettled but not enough to vote for “that white party” nor for the more radically left wing EFF. COPE had a golden opportunity but blew it with unseemly squabbling.
So due to a dearth of alternatives, the ANC is back for 5 more years. We can only hope that the ANC corrects their trajectory and gets back to their principles. If they don’t and a viable, honest black alternative appears, they will find that even loyal supporters will only take so much.