COMMENT

Did racial identity hold sway in the 2019 elections?

Zohra Dawood says this election result should serve as a wake-up call to all political parties

Did racial identity hold sway in the 2019 elections?

16 May 2019

The 8 May 2019 elections were held at a time and in a climate that saw most South Africans collectively concerned about the economy, corruption and State capture.

If trends, pollsters and pundits are to be believed, the natural course of events that should have followed is that those who offered adequate policy and practical alternatives to the status quo would be rewarded and the culprits punished. This wasn’t quite the case. Some old voting habits and behaviours held sway, while newer trends emerged, the most important of which was that far too many potential voters didn’t bother to register to vote or did not turn up to vote on 8 May and in the case of 235 472 voters, spoilt their vote at the polling booth. In addition, and despite the population pyramid in South Africa, it was mainly the young who were the most disengaged.   

Cyril Ramaphosa’s faction in the ANC bled support, as did the DA. Net winners were the EFF, the IFP and the FF+. While pundits predicted increased support for the EFF, the IFP surprised many as the comeback kid.  The FF+ is being described as the dark horse in the race (no pun intended), having increased its support from under 1% in 2014, to 2.3% in 2019. New kids on the block who have a foot in the parliamentary door include the African Transformation Movement and GOOD. 

The large menu of 48 parties notwithstanding, with a smorgasbord of single-issue parties and more encompassing ones, large numbers of South Africans voted along racial lines. This, even though most of the parties contesting elections emphasised their non-racial and inclusive character, other than Black First Land First (BLF).  BLF overtly stated its position as being a party for black people and by implication, got black-only votes, albeit a handful. The ANC and the DA received their largest bloc of support - at around 70% - from black and white voters, respectively.  The voters were almost exclusively black in the case of the EFF, and white in the case of the FF+. The IFP recouped its support in rural KZN amongst its Zulu base and Patricia de Lille’s GOOD peeled away some of the Coloured vote from the DA. These trends, while not precise, were gleaned from an analysis of the demographics of voting stations. The analysis of voting behaviours will no doubt be populated in the coming weeks by academics and election analysts and will form the basis of the Centre for Unity in Diversity’s second Roundtable in June 2019.    

Much has been written about the issues of rising inequality - with its roots in increasing levels of corruption and State capture - and the lack of economic growth. Not least in the State of Capture Report by former Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela and the State Capacity Research Project’s Betrayal of the Promise, How South Africa is Being Stolen. These issues are clearly reasons for the non-participation of voters in the 2019 election but don’t explain the reasons for the racial nature of voting patterns and behaviours. 

The reasons might lie, as was identified in a previous article, in the fraying social contract across populations in South Africa. Former President Zuma’s political popularity was crafted on divisive racial politics that gave rise to the EFF’s brand of black nationalism. However, there has been little effort, post Zuma, to stem the tide on the growing strain on race relations and the protection of minorities. Neither, regarding the respect and promotion of unity and diversity in the country. 

The net effect is a climate where people have lost hope. People simply did not place a high enough premium on the vote to effect change, or voted for parties that will protect their interests. 

The critical question then, is whether time is on our side to mend relations amongst diverse populations - racial, ideological and geographic - in South Africa? 

The answer is a clear yes, because even if more people are disengaged than ever before, the broad conclusion is that between the ANC losing support and the opposition DA getting a wake-up call, the moderate centre is holding, at least for now. Rabid racists like Andile Mngxitama’s BLF failed to muster support and his tone and rhetoric must fade from the construction of the future. 

The task of reconstruction of the nation-building project requires deft handling to move the country toward the social contract negotiated in the early 1990s. The response from all parties, not least the ANC, is to do as President Cyril Ramaphosa did in a hasty post-election announcement of the creation of a policy war room. Equal effort and priority must be given to rejuvenating a climate of peaceful co-existence in South Africa, lest we fall off the edge of the cliff. 

National elections are a critical barometer for the mood of the citizens of a country and this election result should serve as a wake-up call to all political parties. The people of the country must come first and a cohesive population pulling in the same direction will result in greater dividends for all.      

By Ms Zohra Dawood, Director, Centre for Unity in Diversity, 16 May 2019