Election results a blow against racial mobilisation
The results of the nationwide municipal elections on 3rd August are a repudiation of all those seeking to polarise South Africa along racial lines. In the first place, the great majority of whites voted for a party with a black leader. This is a neat answer to all those academics and journalists who in the past couple of years have been cooking up a witch's brew they call "whiteness" that enables them to depict all white people as having racism baked into their DNA.
Secondly, the Nelson Mandela Bay metropolitan area, whose population is only 15% white, is likely to find itself with a white mayor put there by blacks once coalition talks have been concluded between the Democratic Alliance (DA) and smaller parties. Not only is Athol Trollip, the DA's candidate for mayor, white, he is also a farmer whom the African National Congress (ANC) accused of abusing his workers.
In the view of President Jacob Zuma the mere fact that Mr Trollip is a white farmer makes him a thief. The accusation that whites stole South Africa has been most vociferously made by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), but Mr Zuma began to echo it at the beginning of this year when he said "vast tracts of land [had been] stolen from the indigenous people of South Africa'.
Both the ANC and the EFF seem to have miscalculated about land. The ANC's promises to "radically accelerate" land reform did not stem its losses in either urban or rural areas. The EFF did well in some constituencies, but its overall support went up from 6.3% in the national election in 2014 to only 8.2% in the municipal poll. The implication is that its promises to confiscate white land did not resonate as much with black voters as it no doubt expected.
This is not surprising. An opinion poll conducted for the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) last year showed that "more land reform" was just about the least of South Africans' concerns. They regarded more jobs and better education as very much higher priorities. As for stealing, the municipal results show that a growing number of voters think thieves are not to be found among white farmers so much as among top politicians, town councillors, and municipal officials.
Mr Zuma's depiction of white farmers as thieves was not the only example of how he stooped to venomous abuse in a manner reminiscent of Donald Trump, the American Republican presidential nominee. The DA were "poisonous snakes", he declared. Its leader was "a child of the oppressors". Mr Zuma said he could not fathom how blacks could lead or even support a white party. They should stop fighting each other because this simply "pleased the oppressors", who still controlled the economy. The DA, said the ANC's national spokesman, Zizi Kodwa, was a "haven for racists", its upper echelons dominated by individuals "who hark back to the days of apartheid".
So there we have it. Where once the National Party used the supposed menace of "swart gevaar" to mobilise whites against blacks, the ANC is now using "wit gevaar" in an attempt to mobilise blacks against whites. Lawrence Schlemmer, a one-time president of the IRR, warned fifteen years ago that sound race relations in post-apartheid South Africa could be jeopardised by racial mobilisation.
It is a warning that should never be forgotten, but the election results suggest that racial mobilisation yields diminishing returns. The DA got eight million votes, of which fewer than half came from whites. It has displaced the ANC as the political home for people of all races, which is a momentous development. Voters, it seems, will not be so easily duped by racial stigmatising and scare stories. Nor will they be easily deceived by populist promises about accelerated land reform as the answer to poverty.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the Institute of Race Relations, a think-tank promoting political and economic freedom.