How the ANC lost the coloured and Indian vote

Ferial Haffajee

The first reason it lost the coloured and Indian vote is that the ANC sees it as a coloured and Indian vote - when it didn't, the ANC was much more successful in these former strongholds.

I’m black, as defined by Steve Biko, but apartheid meant that I spent my childhood and early adult years in the coloured and Indian group areas of Bosmont, Eldorado Park, Fietas and Lenasia.

I may live in Parkhurst, but consider home to be Mayfair and Fordburg, areas which the African National Congress lost, rather shockingly, to the Democratic Alliance last week.

I think I know why the ANC has faced a drubbing in these areas, which, because of apartheid’s legacy remain conurbations of largely Indian and coloured communities. The pattern of loss was repeated in the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal where a gleeful DA lapped up the Cupidos and the Coovadias.

The ANC’s national executive committee is going to spend a torrid day working out how this happened in areas that were once solid blocs of support for the governing party. Early reports this weekend had a range of ANC leaders asking: “Why did we lose the minorities? Did they become racist overnight?”

First problem

I think it’s more complex than that.

The first problem is this terminology of “majority” and “minority” is foreign to those of us schooled by the United Democratic Front, the form which the ANC took in the 1980s when it was banned and internal activists made a final push against apartheid.

In Bosmont, for example, ANC deputy elections head Jessie Duarte was a community leader who taught us a unity of purpose that was embroidered together by the philosophy of non-racialism. She and the others we looked up to never spoke the language of minority then: they taught us about unity, non-racialism and other ideologies that underpinned the idea of being South African. Crucially, they were enabling leaders who thought nationally but organised locally. They responded to local issues because they were based in their communities.

Later, in Mayfair, under the web of forms that the UDF took, we were organised into groups, which taught literacy, fought against group areas evictions, built community women’s organisations and knitted the youth together across races.

I recognise now that all this excellent work embedded a rich non-racial consciousness and ensured that these areas eschewed efforts to divide by the apartheid order. The UDF understood, as the ANC seems not to understand, that you have to be present in people’s everyday struggles. So people who were bullied by Group Areas goons found support and succour in the anti-evictions support groups. Domestic and other workers were seen as part of the community and were supported in various skills training initiatives. The youth were kept out of the streets in workshops with people from across Johannesburg so that the old apartheid divisions were filed down into insignificance.

Placing us in boxes

When freedom came, it was almost natural that the ANC won because it was embedded in our communities, our consciousness and was really all we knew.

Looking back to the '80s, they taught us not to be naïve about difference, but encouraged us to think of ourselves as belonging to a future country where these apartheid divisions would become meaningless. The language of “minority rights” was reserved for the sell-outs in our communities who dabbled with the old order in the Tricameral Parliament and other disastrous efforts by the Afrikaner nationalists to co-opt black communities against each other. The ANC and later, the UDF, taught us to think differently, to escape the apartheid boxes of identity politics.

Now, to my horror, it’s using those very same boxes to try and understand why it’s lost the support of communities that it so successfully brought into the democratic map in the 1970s and 1980s. Steve Biko must be turning in his grave. And Walter Sisulu in his.

The ANC brought the ideology of minority and majority into its mainstream thinking when it assimilated the nationalists like Marthinus van Schalkwyk into its fold. It co-opted the coloured and Indian nationalists too (people we had regarded as sell-outs), all of whom brought this dangerous ideology of difference right into the non-racial heart of the party.

There is little community organisation in Mayfair any longer, so I’m not surprised that the candidate Junaid Pahad (brother of Essop and Aziz) lost to the DA candidate. While he’s a good neighbour, he hasn’t called us to a single meeting in the past five years nor has the ANC responded as it did in the 1980s to all the very real local challenges.

My guess is this pattern of social distance and alienation has beset every one of the ANC’s previous strongholds in coloured and Indian areas.

ANC failing

The ANC has failed miserably to build on its important work in the 1970s and 1980s to change the consciousness and living conditions of coloured and Indian communities. Instead, it has left these areas to the clever strategists of the Democratic Alliance who have capitalised on the ideology of minority identity with grand (or devastating) results, depending on where you stand.

I listen carefully to the DA’s clever boys and girls and balk at how Fordsburg, Mayfair, Lens, Eldo are merely minority vote-catching pools where it has exploited the sense of being forgotten, of being marginal and minor that is so common in these communities that were once so rich and bursting with so much potential.

The DA leader Helen Zille knows the history and potential of non-racialism, but in her engine rooms all we are, are racial boxes to be ticked. It breaks my heart. The potential was once so much larger. Once when the ANC were warriors.  

- Ferial Haffajee is editor of City Press.

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