Politics and race in South Africa

A blunt South African political advertisement has been making the rounds on social media in South Africa. I want to show it to you because I think it provides an excellent glimpse into the politics of a country still struggling to find its political footing two decades after the end of apartheid.

The ad was produced by a political party called the Democratic Alliance. It comes ahead of the May 7 elections and blasts their chief rival, the African National Congress.

The DA and the ANC are the two largest political parties in South Africa, although the ANC – which was Nelson Mandela’s party –has a dominant hold everywhere except Cape Town and the surrounding Western Cape province.

The ad features the DA’s candidate for premiere (equivalent of an American governor) in Gauteng province, which is home to Johannesburg.

The candidate, Mmusi Maimame, is speaking directly to the camera. But he’s not just speaking to anyone. Maimame is really speaking directly to other black South Africans.

Now is a good time to teach you lesson one in South African politics: Race and politics are inextricable. (This actually applies to many aspects of South African life.)

This ad is an attack ad on the ANC, but paradoxically Maimame opens by praising what the ANC has done in the past. “There have been some great leaders, leaders who have taken this country forward. You voted for them,” he says.

He’s talking about Mandela and the other ANC leaders who led South Africa out of apartheid. They truly deserve the praise.

With that out of the way, cue the transition to ominous music.

“But since 2008 we have seen President Jacob Zuma’s ANC. An ANC that is corrupt, an ANC for the connected few. It’s an ANC that is taking us backwards,” Maimame continues.

Those be fighting words.

More on that in a minute, but first a brief history lesson on SA politics over the last 20 years.

It wasn’t until the end of apartheid in 1994 that black and colored South Africans were given the right to fully participate in elections.

Given that South Africa is 80 percent black and 10 percent colored, you can see how this radically changed SA politics overnight.

Nelson Mandela and his ANC cruised to victory in the first free South African election, securing more than 62 percent of the votes cast.

In every national election since – they happen every five years – the ANC has also found a relatively easy path to victory. Mandela declined to run for a second term and his successor Thabo Mbeki stayed in power for the next ten years.

During Mbeki’s time in office the post-apartheid sheen of the ANC began to fade a bit. Mbeki faced a string of controversies and eventually was forced to resign after the ANC stopped supporting him in parliament.

That paved the way for Jacob Zuma to become president in the next election, which brings us to the Zuma era and a divisive time in SA politics.

Even before he was president, Zuma faced corruption and rape charges, both of which he managed to beat.

In the rape case he claimed the sex was consensual, although he didn’t use a condom with the woman who was known to be HIV-positive. The judge, activists and the press all condemned him after he famously explained that he showered after the sex to reduce his chances of contracting HIV.

South Africa has what is known as a proportional representation voting system. That means that instead of directly electing a president, South Africans vote for their local members of parliament. If a party earns a majority in parliament it can then appoint the president.

The ANC won 66 percent of the vote in the 2009 federal election and Zuma became president.

Despite the win, the ANC’s power was starting to erode. Political parties largely control regional and municipal operations and for the first time in 2009 the Democratic Alliance took control of the Western Cape, South Africa’s second most populous province and home to Cape Town.

Fast-forward to today and Zuma is a more divisive figure than ever. Most recently, he faces intense criticism after an independent public auditor found that $20 million of public money was used to fund upgrades at Zuma’s private rural compound.

The state justified the expenses as necessary security upgrades, but the auditor concluded they were largely excessive and ordered Zuma to repay the state.

The upgrades included a helipad, swimming pool, a visitor’s center and a new chicken coop (for security, of course).

So why, you ask, is this guy still in power? Because the ANC is still a powerful force in South African politics.

The center-left DA is the strongest alternative, but its reputation as a party for white or colored people make it a hard sell for many black South Africans reluctant to abandon the party that brought South African out of apartheid.

Hence the DA put forward a black candidate in the predominantly black Gauteng province and filmed an ad with him speak directly to black voters. Their goal is clear: convince black voters that shunning the ANC doesn’t mean you are betraying the legacy of Mandela and the other ANC leaders who bravely fought apartheid.

Maimane closes the ad with the phrase “ANC ayisafani,” which roughly translates to “the ANC isn’t what it used to be.”

For better or worse, the DA realizes they need more black faces to gain serious ground outside the Western Cape. In January they went all-in on that approach.

Realizing they needed black votes to win a national election, the DA forged an alliance with a party called Agang SA.

A woman named Mamphela Ramphele formed Agang SA as an ANC alternative run by black leadership. Ramphele negotiated a coalition with the DA and as part of the deal she was picked as the DA’s presidential candidate.

It seemed like a good move at the start. The DA got a foothold among black voters and Agang could use the DA’s network to significantly grow its influence.

The deal didn’t last long, however.

As expected, the ANC was the first to blast the coalition. In one of the more brazen political attacks I’ve ever seen, an ANC spokesman actually called Ramphele the DA’s “rent-a-black candidate.”

Members of her own party then accused her of stabbing them in the back. Within just a few days the coalition collapsed and Ramphele pulled her name out of the running.

She originally thought her decision marked a move in South Africa towards a new political thinking, but later apologized for the move and said the timing was not right.

“Some [people] cannot or will not transcend party politics. We see people trapped in old-style race-based politics,” she told South African news website Times Live.

I think it’s easy to view racial politics as a form of racism, but the reality is more complicated.

Racial politics have proven to be dangerous for South Africa both under apartheid and after, but that doesn’t mean we should expect it to disappear overnight. You have to understand the complex factors that led to this point, including history, culture and access to education.

Think about it – a more educated and informed electorate will foster independent thought and help people break away from corrupt parties.

This upcoming election will be the first in which members of the “born free” generation will participate. These are young voters who have only known a post-apartheid world. Watching how they vote will be a strong barometer for the future of South African politics.


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