Because of apartheid and colonialism, race was the main social contradiction before the democratic breakthrough of 1994. As we approach the 2014 general election, does race still matter? If it still does, will it shape the outcome of the election?
In response to the question, there are several options available to us, and the ones we go for will be informed by the choices we make, which themselves are shaped by a range of calculations, inclinations and emotions. I use the word ‘calculations’ because race was, and continues to be, a social construct that attached, and continues to attach, itself to narrowly defined and constructed identities intended to displace or distance the other from social, political, economic and other resources. In the case of South Africa, to borrow an argument from the book The Darker Side of Western Modernity, our present and future are chained to the past. Therefore, our electoral present is chained to our colonial and apartheid past and, once again, this will be reflected in the coincidence between race and voting patterns in 2014.
The problem, however, is that some political parties have tried to portray black voters as the villains of the piece when it comes to the ‘racial census’ dimension of South African elections. Inadvertently, one party, in particular, the Democratic Alliance (DA), has cast itself in the role of the dishonest and manipulative Iago and the black voter, moved by raw emotion in its support for the African National Congress (ANC), is the mindless Othello. The irony, of course, is that the ANC and the DA are two sides of the same racial coin in relation to the coincidence between race and voting patterns, and to the extent that they are the main beneficiaries of South African elections in their incarnation as a racial census. Since the DA has, over the years, sharpened its propensity for pretending that racial exceptions are the rule, I suppose its leaders will argue that it is the most nonracial political party in this country. I am never sure who the DA leaders are trying to convince in this regard since they, in what I suspect are their doubts about the veracity of their racial claims, tend to flirt too intimately with denial and postracial mumbojumbo. In fact, the denialist logic of the DA in policy areas such as black economic empower- ment may, in part, be the reason the racial census dimension will remain a component of the South African political landscape for much longer than it should.
For its part, the ANC denies that it has given up on white voters. The reality is that, even if it is not a function of party policy, as a matter of tactics and practical politics, the ANC will most probably not put too much money where its mouth is in an attempt to woo white voters. In any event, the vast majority of white people are, in the foreseeable future, not going to vote for the ANC, even if the survival of the universe depended on it. But what I find funny, albeit in a tragic way, is the fact that the ANC and the DA have become inextricably tied to each other by the ANC’s sins of the present and the DA’s denial of the pernicious effect of the sins of the past on the present. It is for this reason that I think neither the ANC nor the DA will be able to transcend the coincidence between race and electoral outcomes. As a matter of practical politics, the DA has no choice but to hold on to the spoils of the 1999 Fight Back campaign while it reaches for the mirage of significant gains among black voters.
This, however, is not to argue that the coincidence between race and voting patterns will never be broken. My argument is that there is a possibility that, in future, parties other than the ANC and the DA will benefit from the coincidence or, alternatively, the coincidence will be broken when voters across the board start looking for alternatives to both parties.
This brings me to the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). It is becoming clearer by the day, at least to me, that one of the things the EFF intends to achieve is the maximisation of benefits from the racial census dimension of our elections. The interesting thing for me is what, I think, will be a disjuncture between the number of black voters who agree with the messaging of the EFF around issues such as land and another coincidence – the coincidence between race, class and conditions of underdevelopment and economic disadvantage, on the one hand, and the number of black people who will actually vote for the Red Berets, on the other.
Ultimately, though, the racial census is not a good thing for our democracy, even if it is good for political parties.