The African National Congress (ANC), which governs South Africa, finally held its postponed Western Cape provincial elective congress in June. This was after painstaking years of electing branch and regional executives. The new executive is the first elected ANC Western Cape provincial executive in six years.
These are among the first essential steps the ANC needed to take to be on a better footing to make gains in this province – the only one of nine it doesn’t control.
But, the odds are stacked against the party making serious inroads in the province, let alone winning it.
By history and demography, the ANC in the Western Cape faces tougher challenges than anywhere else in the country. In all other provinces, black Africans constitute the majority of voters. But in the Western Cape the majority are coloured voters. “Coloured” in South African history means people who are of biracial or multiracial descent, or whose ancestors were Khoisan, not Bantu-speaking Africans. The country’s other population categories are white and Indian.
The mass support in the Western Cape for the United Democratic Front, a loose coalition of anti-apartheid organisations allied to the then-banned ANC, between 1983 and 1990, misleadingly suggested support for the unbanned ANC after 1990. In fact, the ANC in that province faced devastating defeats in all the elections from 1994 onwards.
The ANC started by winning only 33% (rounded off) of the votes in the first democratic 1994 election, rising to 42% in 1999 and peaking at 45% in 2004. After that it declined to 32% of the votes in 2009 and 2014, dropping further to 29% in 2019. It attracted still fewer votes in local government elections, getting for example only 21% of the votes in 2021. The Democratic Alliance (DA) has run the province with an absolute majority for over a decade.
The effect of the ANC’s governance and poor performance in the eight provinces and most municipalities it runs is the main factor in the ANC’s nationally declining vote in the four general elections held since 1994. In media, commentariat, and auditor-general reports, the DA is judged to do a much better job of running the Western Cape province and Cape Town metro.
One factor for its declining vote is demography. Though all major South African parties commit to a vision of a non-racial society, it is estimated that less than 2% of white voters vote for the ANC, and less than 6% of African voters vote for the Democratic Alliance. A majority of coloured voters vote against the ANC, and in the Western Cape coloured voters constitute a majority of the electorate.
This is in spite of the fact that the ANC over the years chose several coloured and Indian leaders for the province, such as Allan Boesak, Chris Nissen, Dullah Omar, Ebrahim Rasool, and Marius Fransman. This showed that the ANC was no longer limited to Africans, but sought to represent a “rainbow nation”, in Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s phrase.
But the old joke that in Africa election results are an ethnic census is too simplistic. The coloured majority of the Western Cape electorate has ensured that the ANC has never won an absolute majority in that province. But coloured voters are almost a majority of Northern Cape province voters, where the ANC comfortably wins every election. It is clear that many coloured voters in that province do vote for the ANC.
Also, there is a striking difference between Cape Town and the rest of the Western Cape. In the city, the DA scores sensational majorities from 92% in white voting districts to 80% in coloured townships. Elsewhere in the province, the DA seesaws between 45% and 55% of the local votes.
Challenges and own goals
What can explain such a spectacular divide? As a political scientist and historian, I suggest that one factor is that in Cape Town, the DA of 2023 is based upon the old network of its historical predecessor the Progressive Party (Prog) branches, and the current DA politicians were mentored into politics by Helen Zille, the party’s federal chair, and other old Prog leaders. These were liberal activists and veterans committed to nonracialism.
But in the rural Western Cape, today’s DA branches are based upon the renamed National Party branches of the 20th century. National Party politicians, responsible for driving the apartheid programme, were late converts to non-racialism, and often tone deaf to what black voters will take as priority issues, or insults. The DA is made up of the former Progs and National Party adherents.
Another factor in the ANC’s declining vote is the declining moral standards of ANC leadership. The first ANC Western Cape chair after 1994 was the respected Chris Nissen, a trilingual clergyman (speaking isiXhosa, English and Afrikaans) from the Presbyterian church. This enabled him to speak to all voters in their mother tongue.
By 2016 the chair was Marius Fransman, a career politician, who had to step down from all posts after complaints of being a sex pest were lodged against him. The ANC judged that these complaints also merited suspending his membership for five years.
After that, the ANC Western Cape was unable to elect anyone at all as its chair for six years, due to factionalism and branches, zonal, and regional structures becoming defunct. Simultaneously, nationwide, the ANC Youth League was disbanded, and the ANC Women’s League very little in evidence. The plight of the ANC in this province was evident to all.
The new popular leader, Vuyisa JJ Tyhalisisu, was elected chair by 311-282 votes. Its leader in the Western Cape provincial parliament, Cameron Dugmore, is a veteran of four decades of service to the ANC, and nationally the only white person in such an ANC position.
The newly elected Western Cape provincial executive committee balances Africans such as Tyhalisisu and Ayanda Bam with coloureds such as Neville Delport, Sharon Davids and Derek Appel.
A significant number of ANC branches have been revived. This coincides with a start in reviving the ANC Youth League and the Women’s League. Next year’s general elections will show how far these measures have changed ANC fortunes in the Western Cape.