Don’t expunge black identity

2011-05-28 10:50

Political commentators have by and large described the results of the local government elections as a victory of service ­delivery over identity politics.

They argue that this is a “normalisation and maturation” of our political culture.

However, this is not an entirely accurate or innocent conceptual move by our analysts. ­

Instead, it provides the theoretical and ­philosophical foundations for delegitimising and ultimately refuting identity ­interests, which in this case are the ­interests of black ­people.

The subtext is that black people have ­finally come to abandon blind racial ­solidarity for a more scientific, rational approach.

The evidence produced to ­sustain the argument is that growing numbers of black people are voting for the DA.

But if the argument about service delivery is the deciding factor in voters’ minds, then one would expect to also see large numbers of white people voting for the ANC in those areas where it has governed efficiently.

Don’t hold your breath.

The fact is that white people will have voted for the DA irrespective of the ANC’s performance.

So here lies the double standard: analysts see it as a normalisation and maturation of democracy when black people abandon identity ­politics to vote for the DA.

But they keep mum when whites fail to vote for the ANC, even where it is doing well.

Take Cape Town as an example of the fallacy that we are moving towards ­service delivery as the basis of political choice.

If that was the case, why did both the DA and the ANC not choose someone from Gugulethu or Langa as their mayoral candidate?

Both parties chose coloured mayoral candidates because they know very well that identity politics still matter.

So who does the DA – and to a lesser extent the ANC – think they are kidding when they say they are leading the charge in moving us from identity-based to ­service delivery-based politics?

Frankly, what I see in this is the trivialisation and banalisation of black politics as nothing more than a fight about services and whether they deserve walled or open toilets. The risk is we are going to have an entire generation of young people growing up believing that all there was to our struggle was a fight about services.

And that may well set the limits to their political and intellectual imagination. And yet black existence is more than what we eat and drink. Steve Biko put it brilliantly when he said: “Material poverty is bad enough; coupled with ­spiritual poverty, it kills.”

I would suggest the concept of identity interests as a way of explaining the ANC’s decline in support or voter apathy, since it captures the complexity of human beings better than any dichotomous separation of identity and service delivery.

And one classic identity interest that ­explains voter behaviour is that of trust. Many black people would rather stay away from the polls than vote DA because they are still suspicious about whether white people would deliver to them.

Conversely, many white people would automatically vote for the DA rather than choose an ANC that might just take their services and privileges away from them.

American scholar Francis Fukuyama ­describes trust as the “expectation of ­cooperative behaviour” based on shared norms.

It is the absence of historically co-generated, shared norms that explains why white people would not vote for the ANC irrespective of its service-delivery performance in certain municipalities, and why black people would rather stay away from the polls than support the DA.

A lack of trust can also be used to explain voter apathy among black ­people. Many people just do not believe that government is acting in their ­interests.

In that respect, the ANC would do well to heed Fukuyama’s warning about what happens when trust begins to decline. He says: “While governments can enact ­policies that have the effect of depleting (trust), they have great difficulties understanding how to build it up again.”

» Mangcu is the executive chairperson of the ­Platform for Public Deliberation at the University of ­Johannesburg

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