After an election campaign that has seemed to be very, very long, 20 million or more South Africans will go to the polls on Wednesday to elect a government for the next five years.
The campaign has seemed long, perhaps, because there has really only been one subject for discussion — the fitness for office of the African National Congress’s (ANC) president Jacob Zuma.
Because of the inevitability of his party’s victory, Zuma and his legal battles have been more or less the only way that opposition parties have been able to make an impact on the hustings.
The subject has dominated press conferences held by the ruling party as well.
The attention on Zuma has translated into a call from the opposition to deny the ANC the two-thirds majority that it would need to change the Constitution in a way which, until the prosecutors decided to drop charges, would have enabled the party to render their leader immune.
Aside from that, the main discussions have been about the economy, service delivery, poverty and crime. And the trouble with this is that the parties do not have very different approaches — at least publicly.
When the dust settles and the pencilled crosses are being made on the ballot papers, the votes will be cast according to which party each voter thinks will suit his or her own interests best.
Emergence of Cope
For the vast majority of voters, that will still mean the liberation ethic of the ANC. But what has made this election different has been the emergence of the Congress of the People (Cope).
The point about Cope is that it too has its roots in the liberation movement, its supporters are the same township dwellers that have voted ANC in the past, and who — even if they have felt betrayed by the ANC leaders — could not have voted for the largest opposition party, the DA.
Tony Leon, who built the DA from a party with a tiny handful of MPs to one with 44 at dissolution, allowed it to appear that the growth came from staunch supporters of apartheid and the National Party government, and nothing that his successor, Helen Zille, could do has been able yet to change that image.
The opposition party that during the past 15 years won the most seats was, of course, FW De Klerk’s National Party, which got 20% of the vote in 1994. It also won the Western Cape. Ironically, many of those Nats who did go into Leon’s party left it to join the ANC alongside Marthinus van Schalkwyk.
The second-biggest opposition party in 1994 was Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), which has continued on a steady decline ever since, and thanks to a gerontological high-handedness seems likely to continue the downward path this time.
Voting on Wednesday is likely therefore to hold most interest in those black townships where Cope may be able to edge the ANC, and where the failing IFP will try its own form of the “fight back” that corralled so many white votes for Leon.
Thousands of extra security forces have been drafted into the already tense province of KwaZulu-Natal to ensure that the fighting back does not happen literally, and police chiefs have assured the country that they are able to stamp on any incipient outbreaks of violence there.
There is likely to be tension in some townships in other provinces — Gauteng, Limpopo and Mpumalanga for instance — where adherents of Cope and of the ANC may try strong-arming their opponents.
In the Eastern Cape the situation is further complicated by the ambitions of the former military dictator of Transkei, Bantu Holomisa, to stay in the business of democracy and salvage as much as he can of his dwindling support base in the United Democratic Movement.
The market research company Ipsos-Markinor, which has been churning out a series of analyses following its opinion polls taken last October and in February/March this year, reckoned that the Western Cape could end up with the most intolerant atmosphere, as a retreating ANC yielded ground to both Cope and the DA.
So far there has been no sign of this flaring up into actual violence.
Losing faith in the ANC
The DA is looking forward to a spectacular victory in the province, but Cope and the Independent Democrats (ID) of Patricia de Lille are also hoping to do well. The coloured voters far outnumber black and white voters together in the province, and seem to have lost much of the faith in the ANC that they had.
There is a good deal of resentment among the coloured population because they have not felt ‘black’ enough to have benefited from the economic empowerment of former liberationists, and this has been translated into support for the DA at recent local government by-elections. In Mitchells Plain last month the DA took an ID seat with a majority of nearly 80%. In Parow on the same day the DA won by over 90%.
The coloured people of South Africa have historically sided with their paler oppressors from time to time — for example in the Xhosa wars the coloured regiments in the British colonial army fought long and hard on the side of the empire.
Zille, reckons that Wednesday’s outcome will at least see her party in a position to head a coalition in the Western Cape, or just possibly to gain an overall majority. The most recent polls do not agree with the latter aspiration.
With the launch of Cope in November there was a feeling that they could rival the DA for the position of the largest opposition party in Parliament. Polls seem to agree that the two will be neck and neck, but a stumbling start to the campaign, with internal squabbles in the leadership, a weak compromise presidential candidate and an apparent lack of promotional finance seems to have hampered Cope’s impetus since then. — I-Net Bridge