The ANC's daunting task in election 2009

Hermann Giliomee on how even a victory by the ruling party could still herald its further decline

Elections are the carnival of the voters - in which they throw out the scoundrels and good-for-nothings. Or so it is supposed to occur. In countries like South Africa, however, the elections usually are different. They are ethnic censuses - the prevailing party represents that biggest ethnic or race group on the basis of who it is rather than the policy that it stands for. In the pre-1994 dispensation it was the National Party, supported by the Afrikaners who composed about 60 percent of the white electorate. Today, with 80 percent of the voters' black, it is the ANC.

There are three kinds of elections. Most elections in South Africa since 1910 have been what could be called confirmation-elections, in which it was a foregone conclusion that the dominant or ruling party would triumph again. The elections of 1915 and those between 1958 and 1987 can be described as such. On the other side of the spectrum are the watershed-elections. In the middle are the future-pointing elections.

We had watershed elections in 1924 and 1948: the two occasions when the governing party was defeated. Both occurred after a great trauma, and were truly a carnival where the voters wanted to reckon with an exceptionally unpopular government. Party leaders were prepared to enter into the most unusual alliances.

The watershed-election of 1924 was even more dramatic than the 1948 one. Two years earlier, the South-African Party government, under General Jan Smuts's leadership, bloodily suppressed a strike by white miners. The police and the army shot dead more than 250. White as well as black people were enraged over the state's use of violence.

Black people could vote only in the Cape Province but the leaders of the Nationalist Party, General J.B.M.Hertzog and Dr. D.F.Malan, reached out to them. Hertzog sent a telegram to Clements Kadalie, found of the black trade union, the Industrial and Commercial Workers' Union (ICU), whose motto was "Africa for the Africans." He told Kadalie that nurturing of mutual sympathy between "white and black Afrikaners" was essential for the progress of the South African nation. The Cape NP leader, D.F.Malan, in a message to black voters pleaded for white and black nationalists to stand should to shoulder.

When the NP and the Labour Party agreed to establish a Pact government if they triumphed in the election, they received support from unexpected quarters. The national leadership of the ANC urged black and brown (coloured) voters to vote against the SAP, in effect a vote for the Pact. Most coloureds voted for one or other of the two Pact parties. The Star reported that some communists decided to support the Pact parties. Commenting on this development, Smuts declared that the Red Flag had come to South Africa and that South Africa would have a foretaste of it under a Pact government. In the 1924 election the NP gained 63 of 135 seats against the SAP's 52 and Labour's 18.

It was not its apartheid platform that enabled the NP to win the 1948 election; but rather the acute discontent over the disruption that had flowed from South Africa's participation in the Second World War. Because the Afrikaners were opposed to South Africa's involvement, discrimination ensued against Afrikaans public servants, who were seen as disloyal. Some 3000 railway employees testified to a Grievances Commission established after election that, although innocent of anti-war activities, they had been denied promotion for posts ranging from clerical posts to that of general manager. Food and fuel shortages and a hated system of permits aggravated the antagonism towards the war.

A close reading of the readers' letters that appeared in the Afrikaans papers in the month or two before the elections showed that rank and file NP supporters were mainly concerned with these issues rather than race. In 1948 white workers and the more established farmers proceeded to switch on a large scale from the United Party to the NP. It was only after the election that NP leaders defined the outcome as a mandate for apartheid. Almost all Afrikaners, whether enthusiastically or partly in favour of apartheid, aligned themselves over the next three decades with the NP.

This sort of watershed-election election is infrequent, and the 2009 election is unlikely to yield something like it. Since its wavering post-Polokwane performance, the ANC has partly recovered its balance. The DA, meanwhile, looks disciplined and purposeful, but it still does not have the orchestration of a mass party - singing and dancing, slogans, promises of contracts. Cope is short of funds and is still far too new and close to Thabo Mbeki (who for many people has become a political Humpty Dumpty).

A parallel is evident between the present-day Cope and the Conservative Party, which broke away from the NP in 1982. In an opinion poll after the breach, the Conservative Party polled 18 percent of the votes. Experienced pollsters now put Cope on a similar level. But while it was initially expected that 50 NP caucus members would defect to the Conservative Party, only 22 actually did so, resulting in a damaging loss of momentum for the new party.

In the 1987 election 30 percent of white voters supported the CP. This looked good, but actually it should have fared better: there had been a black uprising for more than two years, a deep recession, a flight of investors, inflation, rising unemployment, the throttlehold of sanctions, and the crumbling of the pillars of apartheid. Although the NP won, it was obvious that the party was in a fundamental crisis.

This brings us to the third kind of election, the direction-pointing election. Here the outcome was not as important as the question whether the governing party still retained any ideological solidarity. In the 1920 election, Smuts' ruling SAP had won only 41 seats against the NP's 44, while the Unionist Party (25 seats) and Labour Party (21 seats) had emerged as king-makers.

To remain in power, the SAP persuaded the pro-Empire and pro-mine bosses Unionist Party to dissolve and join the SAP. In  the 1921 election, Smuts' SAP won 79 seats against the NP's 45 seats and the Labour Party's  9. It majority of 26 in a Parliament of 132 seats looked comfortable but the rot had set in.

The SAP, principally the party of middle-class Afrikaners, was now also the party of the mine bosses and the fanatical pro-Empire people.: By swallowing the Unionists the party lost all ideological cohesion. It did not have a principle to inspire the party; just its hold on power and the privileges resulting from it.

The same was true of the United Party in 1943. It had won 98 seats against the NP's 43, but was united only by its veneration for Jan Smuts as leader. The party no longer had a clear race policy or profile. It was a divided house. 

The same is true of the ANC today. It has become the party of moral and political corruption, of the merging of party and state and 'deployment' (which can only lead to further corruption), jobs-for-pals, criminal leaders who walk away scot free, and of transformation overriding competence. It is a party which has lost the moral high ground and is without an ideology.

Power does not rest only on a majority of seats. For the ANC to have real authority it needs to impose its values on society. For a brief moment after the 1994 election non-racialism and a genuine balance between merit and black advancement seemed like becoming the dominant values of the new ruling party. Thabo Mbeki squandered all that.

The ANC faces a daunting task in this election. Parties like the ANC or UMNO in Malaysia that become used to the magical two-thirds majority find it very difficult to live without it. Winning two-thirds of the vote almost becomes an end in itself. It sweeps away all doubts about the party's survival and the quality of its leadership. Last year the UMNO leader Abdullah Badawi was compelled to fall on his sword when the party lost its two-thirds majority, along with four provinces. A similar result here will add greatly to the troubles Jacob Zuma faces here, for he will surely be blamed.

If the ANC managed to obtain more than 60 percent of the votes, it will stumble to the next election; but there is nothing that can stop the continuing splintering of support. This foretells an election that indicates the direction of our politics. At present, the ANC has just under 300 of the 400 National Assembly seats. If it ANC gains less than 60 percent in the forthcoming elections, the fat will be in the fire. And only new alliances will then be able to stabilise the country.

This is a translated and amended version of an article which first appeared in Rapport.

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