The African National Congress is hoping that a chunk of white voters will help it over the electoral finishing line.
This has garnered some predictable cynicism. The ANC has done a great deal over the years to alienate many of its erstwhile voters; to believe that it can entice a new voting bloc – people who’ve previously never had much affection for it – to endorse it in the face of electoral decline, state failure and proof-positive responsibility for crippling the country must come across as delusional.
As former ANC MP and columnist Melanie Verwoerd writes, ‘that ain’t gonna happen’. Probably not. But it would be a mistake to dismiss the significance of this out of hand.
Relatively little is said about the phenomenon of ‘race politics’ in the ANC, although President Ramaphosa has reportedly expressed concern about the paucity of whites (and other minorities) in the organisation.
City Press quoted the President as saying: ‘We want the party to embrace everyone and lift the non-racial character of the ANC. It needs to be seen by all and sundry that the ANC is the home for all South Africans, every South African, be they white, Indian or coloured people ... they must feel that the ANC is their home. … In the past we have said the ANC is the parliament of our people. But in the end, the ANC is the home of all South Africans.’
From that, it’s possible to infer that there is something at least quasi-principled in this initiative, to restore the ANC to what it should be.
Therein lies the rub: what is the ANC and what does it aspire to be?
When the president uses the word ‘but’ to connect his comments about ‘the parliament of our people’ and ‘the ANC is the home of all South Africans’ he illustrates the tension. Is it a party grounded in racial nationalism – the discourse of ‘our people’ in contradistinction to ‘you people’ or ‘their people’ – or is it truly committed to the idea of a common citizenship – citizenship meaning not just a legal claim on South African nationality, but a recognised moral claim on participation in society?
The latter idea was dominant around the transition, while the former gained ground with the ascendency of President Mbeki, and has arguably remained dominant in the ANC ever since.
Non-racism has, however, never formally been renounced. Hermann Giliomee, James Myburgh and Lawrence Schlemmer explained the logic of this is an analysis two decades ago: ‘The ANC, whether by design or a happy coincidence of features, has perfected a code in responding to the issue of race. It starts off from the position of non-racism, and it then qualifies this with a commitment to closing racial gaps in order to achieve a legitimate basis for non-racism, and from there it proposes a range of race-based affirmative and empowerment policies to give effect to this. In the latter aspect it is able to assure its African or black supporters that, while non-racial, it is “on their side”.’
In recent years, the ANC has signalled an ever-deeper commitment to racial nationalism; and it needed an opponent, a historical enemy, an ‘other’ to make sense.
This was very much on display in the expropriation without compensation debate, which the ANC conducted with a race-infused vocabulary; in demands for more intrusive employment equity and empowerment; and in the response to the killing of George Floyd in the United States (the deaths of black South Africans at the hands of the security forces as a result of Covid measures attracting little excitement).
Politics of this nature only takes South Africa down the path of mediocrity, failure and resentment.
RW Johnson once remarked that the colonial, Union and apartheid governments had sought to rule the country to the exclusion of the majority; the ANC to the exclusion of minorities. Neither is viable. And if the ANC is now willing to relook at its approach, it can only be to the benefit of the country.
Polling actually shows that most South Africans across the board desire a non-racial future. Personal identities might remain important, but as a whole, they are focused on meeting their material aspirations and the prospects for their children, and see one another not as enemies or competitors, but partners in making things work. Not all feel this way, of course, but a solid majority do. Politically, among ordinary people, non-racism is favoured proposition.
So, what would the ANC’s game-plan look like? Melanie Verwoerd looks back to the early years of democracy and the diversity of the ANC’s parliamentary benches. I remember this too and I understand that the ANC made a sincere effort to showcase its non-racial credentials. I’m not convinced that this had much impact.
In 1994, a document of ‘unmandated reflections’ by Thabo Mbeki said that the ANC had achieved the support of a ‘very small section of the white middle strata’.
I’m not aware of any evidence of a substantial increase in white support for the ANC over the ensuing decade, though I think that perceptions of it among whites greatly improved. Why? Not because it could show that whites were ‘represented’, but because the economy was working and living standards were rising.
We often forget just how (relatively) prosperous and hopeful the country was around the midpoint of the 2000s. My own experience was that if well-to-do white folks pointed to a cabinet member who ‘represented’ them, it wasn’t Alec Erwin or Ronnie Kasrils, but Trevor Manuel. This had nothing to do with colour – he was coloured, and a former unionist – just the fact that Manuel was sympathetic to business, and exuded an air of honesty and competence. ‘Best finance minister we’ve ever had,’ someone said to me.
An ANC turning towards non-racism could be immensely positive for the country. But it would need to be a proper turn, not about padding electoral lists with a bit of ‘diversity’, but turning to better, non-racial and growth-focused policy. Maybe that will attract some minority voters. Maybe it will reengage some of its disaffected supporters. Success is, after all, an excellent electoral asset.
Written by Terence Corrigan, project manager at the Institute of Race Relations