#LGE2016: It’s the middle class, stupid

2016-08-05 16:56
Piet Croucamp

Piet Croucamp

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Piet Croucamp

Elections are never only about who voted for which political party. Voting is often also an expression of your identity.

If analysed, it might explain where you come from, who you work for, where you went to school and the likeliness of you being economically successful. It seems to be hard to escape our historical identities and politicians use such demographical attributes to manage, manipulate and mobilise communities and societies for various political and economic purposes.

For the last two decades, it has been a theoretical maxim of the public discourse in South Africa that the working class and the poor will determine the fate of the liberation movement of South Africa – the ANC.

But, surely, that conventional wisdom needs to be qualified in the aftermath of the 2016 local elections. For one thing, while 64% of those who could or would vote for the ANC is unemployed, the main contenders for the political spoils of office are political parties rooted in middle class interests.

The 2016 local government election was a battle for the soul of the middle class, more specifically the black middle class and August 3, 2016 will probably be remembered as the day they stepped up to the plate for a more competitive democracy.

Unlike the elite and the nine million unemployed South Africans, a middle class is often quite prepared to migrate to political convenience when economic realities require such. It is roughly estimated that the black middle class doubled to approximately six million between 2004 and 2014 and they, by and large, have their interests converged in the industrial wastelands of the highly urbanised Gauteng province.

It is often wrongly assumed that the rise of the EFF was from the ashes and ruins of discontent and somehow conceived in a combination of the struggles of the working class at Marikana and the poor scrapping for survival in informal settlements around urban metropoles. Nothing could be further from the truth; the EFF is a middle class party.

Their strength in the urban inland provinces could well be an indication of their ethnic identity, but the close proximity of their more animated battles in legislatures and at universities are national and reflects a middle class narrative.

The EFF has successfully changed the former white universities into battlegrounds for moderate, lower middle class demands such as no fees and affordable housing. This is a clear indication of middle class parents using their children to pass on the message of the unbearable pressures they experience in an economy that has grinned to a halt in virtually every sector, including the hunting ground of the middle class - the service economy.

That, however, has not always been the case. The black middle class had been a very loyal constituency to the ANC of Thabo Mbeki. In fact, the Gear-policy, so deplored by the labour unions, has most likely provided educated black South Africans and ambitious tenderpreneurs with the perfect conditions in which to mature economically as well as politically.

Being the party of the disempowered majority for decades, the ANC used a rather ironic and contradictory mix of tenderpreneurship, state-driven employment and statutory enforced affirmative action in the private sector to set up what would turn out to be a less than completely loyal demographic entity.

With the militant nature of labour unions in South Africa, almost everyone who is formally employed – from mining to manufacturing – ended up being a reluctant, if not obstinate and recalcitrant, member of the amorphous middle class; certainly not always in terms of disposable income, but very much in terms of political expectations.

With the economic meltdown since the 2009, in both domestic and international markets, the middle classes worldwide took a battering from unpredictable interest rates, declining savings, shrinking disposable income and the encroaching uncertainties of the fourth industrial revolution. In the face of this economic contraction, the revolt of the middle classes in South Africa has militant and desperate at the same time.

There can be no doubt that the DA is relying heavily on a measurable share of the middle class to install a protectionist façade against a retaliating ANC, and the reason is obvious: South Africa is a political economy where the so-called swing vote is a strategy of contestation applied by those who can afford political risk-taking.

The DA will often “invite” ANC supporters to “lend” them their vote once, the implication of which is that if the DA then governs well, they keep your vote, but you don’t have to leave the home of your forefathers permanently for a better, more effectively managed local government.

An observable split in voting patterns in Tshwane between the ward and proportional ballot by ANC voters – in an effort to manage the consequences of Luthuli House’s intervention in the metropole – confirms the reality of alienation and the nomadic behaviour of voters in response.

Middle classes are typically nomadic constituencies under conditions of economic contraction or political distress; but they are also stoically dependent on “good governance” to install and maintain the psychographic urge for social stability.

That is why understanding the conditions which lead to the traditional ANC voter leaving the party for the EFF and the DA is so important, because breaking the pattern of voter behaviour is extremely difficult and complicated and in the context of liberation movements, even more so.

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Read more on:    da  |  anc  |  eff  |  local elections 2016

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