The Sunday News
Cetshwayo Zindabazezwe Mabhena
The much-awaited South African general election of 2019 has come and it refuses to go.
The historic vote has raised stubborn and some weighty historical and political issues that must not escape observation or be allowed to elude reflection. Among the telling and weighty issues is the significant decline of Africa’s oldest liberation movement, the African National Congress.
The traditional opposition, Democratic Alliance, also tellingly took a fall in its vote share. Other important historic and political signifiers have been the rise of the Economic Freedom Fighters, and the conservative Freedom Front Plus that will be sending to the National Assembly the grandson of the infamous apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd, a true sign of the political times. The charged political debate that preceded and punctuated the election was populated by such impassioned subjects as the need for the expropriation of land without compensation, state capture and corruption, poverty and unemployment, poor public service delivery and yes, the ticklish subject of immigration and the question of foreign nationals. Thanks to high voltage sloganeering and a lot of shouting and yelling, the debate generated more heat than light, leaving audiences more confused and lost than enlightened.
The Decline of the giants
Africa’s storied and oldest liberation movement the ANC is a political party in slow decline. From its 62,15% vote share of 2014 that gave it 249 parliamentary seats, the ANC declined to 57,5% that gives the governing party 230 seats. That is not a small fall for a governing party that claims liberation credentials and, under Nelson Mandela, once promised a paradisal future for a country that has been home to apartheid and other crimes against humanity. From the 89 seats it won in 2014 the DA declined to 84 seats. The decline of these two major political parties has caused vivid internal and external debates and speculations as to the future of the two traditional political rivals that are besieged by younger and vibrant opposition political parties whose appeal extends to high schools, the many universities and the civil society in the Republic. The politically marauding EFF grew from its 25 seats in 2014 to 44 seats in the present. The GOOD party, a new political outfit together with the African Transformation Movement (ATM) gained an impressive two seats each. Meaningfully, from four seats in the 2014 General Election the Freedom Front Plus has scaled up to ten seats. The rise of these previously minor political parties seems to be connected to the decline of the major parties that is noted above. The so called small and young political parties articulate political ideas in a language that is electrifying publics and other audiences in the country, slowly but surely consigning the traditional and old political parties, ANC and the DA, to historical and political irrelevance that might soon lead to oblivion if the big parties do not take lessons from this.
The return of Identity Politics?
Many analysts have noted what they have called the return of identity politics. This is because voters seem to have voted on racial and ethnic lines. Freedom Front Plus that advocates Afrikaner self-determination seems to have benefited from the loss of the DA that, under its black president, Mmusi Maimane, for the first time in the life of the party tried to shake off the stigma of the party being a white and racist liberal entity. Some white voters that have previously supported the DA seem to have drifted to the Freedom Front Plus that is unapologetically white supremacist. Some of them, in their racist egos, simply could not live with being led by a black person, it seems. The GOOD party harvested its votes from areas occupied by the coloured community of South Africa; and the leader of the very young party is coloured. What can be noted is not the return of identity politics but its durability. South African politics have, since apartheid times, been identitarian and this has not changed. Ideological arguments and policies that are exhibited in party manifestos do not have a firmer grip in the hearts and minds of South Africans than the thickness of blood and the allure of ties of the kith and kin. The identitarian political and geographic boundaries and maps that were created by apartheid have not evaporated in the hearts and minds of South Africans.
That Itchy Subject
All the political parties had in their manifestos the itchy subject of immigration and the topic of undocumented foreign nationals. Of the gladiators it is Julius Malema who condemned xenophobia and publicly chided South Africans for parochialism and misguided Afrophobia. The true and old Pan-Africanist party, the ANC whose very name claims being “African” conveniently shied away from condemning xenophobia. All the parties left Malema to play the African statesman and Pan-Africanist. The DA was happy to play to the populist nationalism of the need to “tighten our borders” with the lower lip while shouting “viva Mandela” with the upper. The EFF was very easily allowed to be the courageous party of Africans in Africa. The vote left the EFF not only with a doubled vote share but a new reputation as a gallant Pan-Africanist political outfit. Malema’s Pan-Africanism and economic freedom political message seems to gain currency and purchase in a country where the democratic experiment has excluded the fight to end social inequalities and enduring racism.
Myth of the Small Party
Before, during and after elections popular opinion, in South Africa and elsewhere in the world, seems to prioritise numbers. Parties are respected and recognised for the size of their crowds in rallies and number of their votes. In terms of durable political meaning and significance this quantitative fundamentalism and statistical reason can be misleading. The fate of the Black Land First party that did not win any seat testifies to this. Black radicalism and the demand for land without compensation to whites was one of the biggest discourses of the 2019 vote yet it did not translate to popularity of the BLF party. Andile Mgxitama and his outfit, in terms of numbers bit the proverbial dust, but that was not all. It is the BLF that scared both the DA and the ANC with its radicalism. The fragile South African reconciliation and transformation experiment shook to its roots as BLF demanded land now. Arguably, in fear of the BLF party and its rhetoric, whites ran to vote their “pressure group” the Freedom Front Plus. In that way, it was the small party, the BLF that set the agenda and caused shifts in the voting patterns of South Africa, and put the big parties in trouble and led to their decline. The BLF itself might not be aware of the power that they held in the 2019 election. They articulated a volatile political discourse of land injected more heat in the South African political climate that is already boiling over with anger and anguish.
The Right Political Moment
Freedom Front Plus, besides benefiting from the fear that the white population had for the BLF and its discourses, gained from what can be called the right political moment worldwide. Right wing white supremacist movements are in the rise the world over. The election of Donald Trump in the USA, and the rise of the right wing in Europe have put right wing politics in the front seat of world history and politics in the present. Financially, ideologically and in terms of confidence and political weight, it can be argued that the Freedom Front Plus benefited from the rise of the right wing worldwide. Significantly, and symbolically, the Freedom Front Plus is sending to parliament the grandson of the architect of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd. Dr Wynand Johannes Boshoff, a Freedom Front Plus MP is the proud grandson of Verwoerd. If there was a symbol of the return or resurrection of apartheid, the political elevation of Boshoff is a telling one. Interestingly, a party like the Freedom Front Plus that is ultra-racist is what the EFF needed to prove to the black population that racism is real and that it is Malema and his red-suited arrangement that can deliver the Republic.
Cetshwayo Zindabazezwe Mabhena writes from Sunnyside, Pretoria in the Republic of South Africa: [email protected]