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‘Born free’ generation can shape future South Africa parliament

LiveMint logoLiveMint 11-05-2014 Salil Tripathi

The big question in the recently concluded South African elections was not whether the African National Congress (ANC) would return to power, but how would the 1.9 million young voters vote. This so-called “born free” generation was born in 1994 or later, had never known apartheid and grew up in a democratic South Africa. While their vote would not significantly alter the results, it might show what a future South African parliament might look like.

But there was widespread apathy. The day I reached Cape Town, the Independent Election Commission announced that some 60% of citizens in their 20s had registered to vote, compared with 90% of those older than 30 had registered.

In the end, some 73% of the electorate voted.

It was heartwarming to see people queuing up to vote in a country where two decades ago such a scene was impossible. I had first visited South Africa in early 1991, when not only were blacks not allowed to vote, but some of the dreadful apartheid-era laws, including Group Areas Act, were technically still on statute books, though increasingly rarely used, particularly after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison the previous February. The laws were changed in June 1991.

Would the young voters listen to their elders and express solidarity with the African National Congress (ANC), in the first elections after South Africa’s first president Nelson Mandela’s passing last December? Or would they go for the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), which still bears some links with the liberal, progressive politics of Helen Suzman and Zach de Beer, who participated in tainted apartheid-era elections but bravely challenged the government during apartheid’s bleakest years despite being part of the privileged white community?

Or would the seductive rhetoric of Julius Malema’s militant Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) sway them? The EFF’s idea of economic freedom is to redistribute wealth from those who own it, fairly or not, to those who don’t, and derives its inspiration from Marx and Lenin for economics and Franz Fannon for a world view.

It is hazardous to make sweeping generalizations about voter intentions anywhere, and more so in a heterogeneous society like South Africa’s, but the young voters may have helped increase the vote share of the DA and the EFF at the cost of the ANC. In the end, it won 62.2% of the vote, only marginally lower than its 1994 share—62.7%. Its strength in Parliament may fall below 250 out of 400 for the first time since 1994.

The DA ended with 22.2%, up from 16.7% in 2009, and its seats may rise to about 90. And the EFF made an impressive debut with 6.4% of the vote and about 24 seats. The DA made inroads in the black vote, winning about 6% support among blacks. It also retained the Western Cape provincial government, and won nearly one out of every three votes cast in Gauteng, whose administrative capital is Johannesburg, the nation’s financial capital. The ANC’s share in Gauteng fell dramatically to about 53%. It also displaced the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) narrowly, to become the main opposition in KwaZulu Natal.

One reason the political map of South Africa did not change dramatically is of course ANC’s legacy and incumbency. Two-thirds of South African voters have expressed dissatisfaction about the way the country is going, and yet two-thirds voted for more of the same party. Of the eligible young voters, only one-third had registered, which significantly reduced their ability to influence the outcome of the elections.

Nkosazana (who did not give her full name), who is 19 and works in the tourism industry in Western Cape said she was not voting because her vote would not change anything. “The ANC politicians are just getting wealthier. We need schools, we need doctors, but nothing changes. What is the point of voting? I don’t trust any of them,” she said. Nomfundo Mbhele in KwaZulu Natal told the BBC she hadn’t bothered registering to vote, even though she knows all about apartheid, because democracy has not delivered anything positive.

A young business executive who had voted said he was too young to remember the apartheid-era struggles, but voted for the ANC to keep the EFF out. “They will drive away all investment,” he said. He equated the DA with the former National Party, which is odd, since while it is rue that the DA had accepted the New National Party (which emerged from the apartheid-era ruling party, the National Party) in its alliance, the NNP left the alliance a year later, and disbanded itself a few years later.

The parties to suffer the most were the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and Congress of the People (COPE), which split from the ANC. COPE has a hard road ahead: it had 30 seats in 2009, but it may lose all but three. Much was expected from Mamphela Ramphele, the distinguished academic who spoke out against corruption and was part of the black consciousness movement during the apartheid era, and who formed a party called Agang, a Sotho-Tswana word meaning let us build; but its vote share was so low it would be lucky to get one seat.

And yet some were unaware of her. One voter said: “I don’t know her name—Mamphele Ramphela? Mamphela Ramphele? Has she done anything?” (As vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, she extended educational opportunities to many underprivileged students; she was also a managing director at the World Bank).

The ANC is a national liberation movement, and dislodging national liberation movements from power is never easy. It took 30 years before Indians voted out the Congress, and that too after prime minister Indira Gandhi declared an Emergency in 1975 and expected to win in 1977. Some other former colonies in Africa and Asia are still ruled by parties that emerged out of their freedom movement.

The ANC has had its share of scandals, including charges against President Jacob Zuma of misusing public funds to renovate his personal property, and his close business ties with the controversial Indian family, Guptas, who are accused of using public property, including a military airport, to ferry guests for a private family wedding last year.

Violent crime remains a major concern—not only sensational cases such as the trial of the athlete Oscar Pistorius or the British Asian businessman Shrien Dewani, but the far more pervasive violence against women. There is a rape every four minutes and a woman murdered by an intimate partner every eight hours in the country. Last year 66,196 cases were reported to the police, and about 4,500 convictions were reached. South Africa has one of the highest rates for crimes against women in the world.

Further, the ANC has shed some of its outwardly liberal democratic credentials by seeking restrictions on freedom of expression. The ANC went to court to remove from public display provocative artist Brett Murray’s satirical painting critical of Zuma; a Zuma supporter then vandalized the painting and was given a suspended prison sentence.

But none of that has affected voters’ preferences. Results show that ANC remains a formidable force, a party machine that can mobilize its supporters even when the voters are disenchanted. The Democratic Alliance may one day get within striking distance of forming a government, but the scale of shift in votes that would require remains forbiddingly large.

There is an air of finality around the sustained decline in support for the IFP (from 8.58% in 1999 to 6.97% in 2004, 4.55% in 2009 and now around 3%). And while the EFF is a long, long way from ever forming a government, if the ANC is short of partners to form a coalition in future elections, might it turn to the EFF for support? After all, many of ANC’s old stalwarts learned their economics from Marxist ideologues, and many currently in the EFF, including its leader Julius Malema, were until recently with the ANC? It is not improbable.

However, unless the ANC takes spectacularly inept steps, its massive hold over the South African electorate will remain strong, and the day of a more radical South Africa remains far.

Salil Tripathi, Mint’s contributing editor, who made reporting trips to South Africa in the early 1990s, was in Cape Town during the election week.​

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