New voters, different landscape

2009-03-23 00:00

The 2009 elections are likely to draw in a new segment of voters and produce an outcome that may completely change South Africa’s political landscape. The elections could also shed some light on the prominence of trans-racial politics in this country 15 years after the democratic breakthrough.

For starters, the historically dominant ANC will contest this election in an unusually weak state.

The ruling party is vulnerable and its party machinery appears weakened.

A symptom that things were not right in the organisation was the failure of the provincial leadership in the Western Cape to register the party for the recent municipal by-elections in the province. The ANC was consequently barred from participating and lost numerous seats to opposition parties.

Elsewhere the ruling party either faces what appears to be a formidable challenge from the newly formed Congress of the People (Cope), or it is riddled by factions. The Eastern Cape, the historical base of the ANC, promises to be a highly contested territory between the two parties.

Cope’s recent rally in Port Elizabeth, where it launched its election manifesto, attracted the size of crowd that is often seen at ANC rallies, a testimony to its popularity in the province.

Factionalism in the North West, Northern Cape and Free State has inhibited proper functioning of the ANC’s organisational structures, often leading to postponement of provincial conferences, and seeing fellow comrades squaring up against each other in court over organisational matters; for example, Vax Mayekiso versus the provincial leadership in the Free State. In February, a senior provincial leader and education MEC in the Free State, Casca Mokitlane, announced his defection to Cope. These and other defections impaired the cohesiveness of the party and portrayed a party in disarray, something that does not inspire confidence among voters as it detracts from the ANC’s electoral message.

Cope’s entry has made the election outcome much less predictable than before. Its immediate resonance with a significant number of people — marked by about 420 000 signed-up members in its first three months of being formed — makes the party a potentially serious contender in the coming elections. How Cope performs will influence voters’ behaviour and their attachment to parties.

What most observers are keen to see is whether the exodus of leaders from the ANC to Cope will replicate itself among voters. Will voters follow their favourite leaders into Cope, or does the ANC have an enduring, independent appeal among its followers, one that is not easily tarnished by the mud thrown at it by the defectors?

Either way, Cope’s electoral fortune or misfortune will indicate the extent to which ANC voters are willing to hold the ruling party liable for its recent unpopular actions — such as firing of premiers, recalling the president and disbanding the crime-busting Scorpions — or reward it for improvements it has effected in their own individual lives, despite the policy mishaps.

Equally important will be how Cope fares among white voters. Cope apparently dominates conversation around the dinner tables in white suburbia. White voters, keen to see a strong challenge to the dominant ANC, may be attracted by Cope’s potential for growth among black voters, its moderate language and its inviting gestures towards the white community.

An example of the party’s gesture towards whites is the appointment of whites in leadership positions and the openness towards reviewing affirmative action. Cope’s attraction for white voters opens up the possibility of ushering in trans-racial politics South Africa.

Similarly, the Democratic Alliance’s performance will offer a verdict on the likelihood of trans-racial politics. The party’s new leader and mayor of Cape Town, Helen Zille, has been visible in the city’s black townships and is among the first to arrive at any public tragic scene to offer official assistance. And she even speaks the dominant township language, isi-Xhosa. Hers has been a drastically different leadership style to her predecessor, Tony Leon, under whom the DA remained synonymous with preserving white privilege. Whether Zille’s enthusiastic courting of black voters pays off will show once the electoral returns come in.

Voter turnout will also determine the parties’ electoral fortunes. Normally a higher turnout benefits the opposition, especially if the electorate is widely discontented with the status quo.

New voters, either first time or formerly inactive voters, are unlikely to be enticed to the polls by a poorly performing incumbent. They need to have a reason to come out and that often means something new about the electoral process.

But the novelty of this election is two-fold: Cope, and the ANC’s decidedly leftist turn. At this stage it is not readily clear who will benefit from a higher turnout (more than 76,73% in 2004).

Both these dynamics have the potential to attract new voters into the electoral process. Cope, on the one hand, may appeal to first-time voters and formerly inactive white voters looking for an alternative to the ruling party; on the other, poor and unemployed voters may derive encouragement from the ANC’s promises of decent jobs, more social grants and from the generally leftist rhetoric of the post-Polokwane leadership.

The precise margins of the results may be unclear now, but it is will certain to usher in a different political landscape.

* Dr Mcebisi Ndletyana, is a senior research specialist in the research programme on Democracy and Governance, and Dr Kwandiwe Kondlo is the executive director of the same programme. Both serve on the SABC’s election panel. This article first appeared in the HSRC Review.

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