Who did the Indians vote for?

2011-06-09 00:00

THE election circus has left town, new mayors make old promises, and the mug shots we’ve been tortured with on street poles have finally been removed. The results were predictable, with the ANC a little weaker, the DA gloating its victories, Cope nearing death, the NFP a formidable dark horse, and the IFP just hanging on. Dozens of smaller parties should start planning alliances, mergers, or obituaries.

Election results, like the pre-election speeches, are always racially tinted. Who voted for whom, and what was the racial split? Our most interesting questions are always — like a morbid rule in South Africa — about race. Each election campaign raises the same debates, and the “Indian vote” is often touted as a package deal, as if all Indians, or members of any race group, herd themselves mindlessly into the voting booths and vote solely on ethnic lines. Promises of free breyani can’t be that strong.

The idea is too simplistic, given the descent of race in favour of class divisions which more boldly stratify society. But local government elections always have more racial flavour than national elections, because identity in South Africa is closely tied to one’s residential area, in addition to race. The link is inseparable, due to apartheid’s spatial policies of desegregation. People were defined by their skin colour, which further defined the area they would live and grow up in. “A place”, then, is not an innocent backdrop, it is a character on its own, a racial character. Local elections touch the very heart of place-identity politics, which are unavoidably racially spiced.

Most Indians continue to live in former Indian townships, the largest being Phoenix and Chatsworth, at opposite ends of Durban. In Pietermaritzburg, it is Northdale and the surrounding northern suburbs. The 20% outside KwaZulu-Natal are in pockets, mostly in Gauteng’s Lenasia and Laudium, but with visibility in most cities and towns.

Let’s focus on the hub.

In Pietermaritzburg, the DA made a clean sweep of all minority group areas (wards 25, 26, 27, 28, 30, 31, 33, 36 and 37). All former Indian and white suburbs are now DA-run, and all nine DA councillors in these wards are from minority race groups.

With not a single elected black DA ward councillor, this is a telling testament of the racial solidarity evoked in community politics in Pietermaritzburg. Two historically black areas — Sobantu and Haniville — disrupted the neat race-place format by being grouped with the Indian suburbs of posh Mountain Rise and working-class Copesville, respectively. Both are now ANC-led.

In Durban, the picture is more complex. Amichand Rajbansi’s Minority Front is the only party that openly courts its niche market of Indian voters. He knows where his roti gets buttered, and usually sticks to these areas. With 2 433 supporters in Pietermaritzburg earning him one seat in council, his 103 043 voters in Durban earned him 11 seats, effectively making the MF the third largest party in the Durban Metro. “The Tiger” also sunk his claws into one seat in Ladysmith, KwaDukuza and Umdoni.

On the ground, Indian voting patterns in Durban are more varied. In Chatsworth, the MF won only two wards, the ANC won two and the DA won one. Stronger in Phoenix, the MF won three wards, and the DA won the other two. Ward 69 in Chatsworth changed affiliations, replacing the MF with an ANC (but still Indian) candidate. Proven track records definitely play their part, with one DA councillor in Phoenix’s Ward 49 being re-elected three times, which he attributes to consistently good service delivery.

The only anomaly is Durban’s Ward 23, Reservoir Hills. Predominantly Indian and always ANC-run, this is the first time that a black candidate had been fielded and won. However, Themba Solomon’s appointment was halted by an independent (Indian) candidate claiming that there were irregularities in the vote counting. Change can be a bitter pill.

Whatever the reasons for the diversity of voting patterns among South African Indians, and certainly there should be, the picture is pretty clear — there is no single “Indian vote”. Any such claim is a myth.

We should reflect on the role of canvassing race-based votes in the context of nation building, the importance of a ward candidate’s race when running for election and the related issue of identity among minority groups, who are perhaps expressing via their ballot an uneasy integration into post-apartheid living.

• Suntosh Pillay is a clinical psychologist who writes independently on social issues.

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