Is the ANC still a non-racial party?

The ANC has a simple campaign when it comes to these elections. 

Look at how much we have done in the past and continue to do now, they say, under the banner of their "good story" theme for the 2014 general elections and the 20th anniversary of the country's democracy.

The breakfast briefing on social cohesion and nation building by ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa on Tuesday was no different.

Social cohesion was embedded in the ANC's very core mission, of building a "united, democratic, non-racial, non-sexist and prosperous South Africa", Ramaphosa told journalists. 

Yet the party has been trying to address the question of its rapidly dwindling support among coloured, Indian and white voters for some time. The drop in support is a slap in the face for Nelson Mandela's vision of a non-racial ANC: a uniting force for all South Africans.

Despite the party's repeated verbal commitment to the "creation of a united, non-racial, non-sexist and democratic society", it scores less and less votes with each election among non-Africans.

Neither has the party had a straight-forward history of including non-Africans within their own ranks.

Mandela may have sold the idea of the ANC as a universally embracing party but it wasn't always that way. Non-Africans were allowed to be full members of the ANC only in 1969, though they were barred from positions on its national executive committee. As late as 1985, non-Africans were not allowed to occupy leadership positions in the party, said ­historian Stephen Ellis, who has written a book about the party's years in exile, External Mission: The ANC in Exile, 1960-1990. It was a necessary African Nationalism at the time, and streaks of it remain in the party. Grumblings have emerged of late about the lack of African ministers in the economic cluster.

'Fault lines of racism'
But at Tuesday's breakfast briefing, Ramaphosa focused on the party's more glorious past in this area. This part of the ANC's story took place against the backdrop of apartheid, as low a base as a country could get in terms of national social cohesion. From there the party made leaps and bounds in uniting the country, flying under the leadership of that "master architect … and great reconciler" Mandela.

"We set about destroying the fault lines of racism, tribalism and more," said Ramaphosa. "Apartheid was about exclusion, we sought to be inclusive and cement our people into a nation, a nation that is going forward."

The highlights of those moments got due mention at the breakfast briefing. Mandela in a Springbok jersey uniting the country for a delirious few moments around winning the 1995 Rugby World Cup. The ANC standing strong against pressure from African nationalists include the phrase: "South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white" in their freedom charter. 

But of course there is more to social cohesion than those moments, Ramaphosa said, in a country as deeply fractured as South Africa. 

"When we were drafting the National Development Plan one of the things that became startlingly clear … is that South Africa has come a long way in dealing with its past," he said, speaking of his experience as deputy chairperson of the National Planning Commission. "But still have a lot of divisions," he added, referencing race, gender, region and more. 

Accordingly, social cohesion and nation building was a process; not an event. "If it was an event it would have ended on April 27 1994," said Ramaphosa, speaking of the country's first democratic election, the culmination of years of struggle. 

The party's grand vision
So social cohesion and reconciliation grew beyond great moments and got institutionalised. "Social cohesion is mainstreamed through all government programmes," said Arts and Culture Minister Paul Mashatile, a member of the ANC's subcommittee on social transformation.

Indeed the idea of social cohesion is so important to the ruling party that not only do they have a subcommittee on the clunky phrase, but a section of their manifesto dedicated to the issue too. Plus this, the eleventh and penultimate editor's breakfast of the party before the elections. 

But in that mainstreaming of reconciliation, nation-building or social cohesion, call it what you will, the party's grand vision bumped up against uncomfortable realities.

Now social cohesion in the party has been reduced to mere governance, bumbling in some areas. Ramaphosa mentioned arts and culture, sports and human settlements as areas where the work of government was aiding social cohesion, as was the very economy itself. 

Journalists asked questions instead about predominantly white sports teams, racial quotas, and violent protests and poor election registration rates among young South Africans indicating that all was not quite well with the project of social cohesion. 

The ANC in government acknowledged it had to do a bit of a balancing act. "You can't transform sports without targets," said Sport and Recreation Minister Fikile Mbalula who has battled with the issue of racial quotas for some time. But at the same time South Africa wouldn't be like Kenya and send athletes to the Olympics to "drown in the pool", he said in one bizarre moment that reminded some of ANC president Jacob Zuma's own faux pas over Malawian roads

Youth dissatisfaction
Ramaphosa and Mashatile went for the contrarian view on protests and youth dissatisfaction, saying that protests were just growing pains and that the youth weren't that disaffected. "As I have gone around the country I have met lots of young people who say: yes we may be unemployed now but we can see you are addressing it," said Ramaphosa

But denial won't mask facts: less than 35% of 18- and 19-year-olds in the country have registered to vote and There's been a sharp rise in service delivery protests over the past decade, according to research conducted by the Social Change Research Unit of the University of Johannesburg. Community protests leapt from 162 in 2008 to 314 in 2009.

But for the ANC leaders addressing the media, wherever there were problems, the party in government had a plan. It will take the election results come May 7 to determine how convinced their voters are – from all backgrounds. 

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Verashni Pillay
Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.

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