South Africa still lives with its past. It is ever present and confronts us in every way. We are unable to shake it even when we desperately want to and we are still going to vote along racial lines.
The Democratic Alliance (DA) has been trying to destroy this voting pattern by putting black faces at the forefront of its election campaigns. One of its tactics has been to portray its premier candidate for Gauteng Mmusi Maimane as a Barack Obama-type figure.
There is a very clear, calculated reason for this: to attract young, black, middle class voters and the born-frees all the parties have been trying to secure. Unfortunately, only 33.6% of born-frees are registered to vote – compared to 60% of those in their 20s and 90% of people older than 30. This means one million born-frees are not interested and have not at all been inspired, even by the Obamafication of Maimane.
Of course it is a huge problem for all political parties, not just the DA, which has banked on them because, as their logic went, since the born-frees have no experience of the struggle, they won’t feel compelled to vote for the ANC. It seems they were wrong.
The born-frees don’t feel compelled to vote for anyone. The excitement deficit our leaders have generated is demonstrated by the lack of these young ones’ interest in voting.
US President Obama’s strongest supporters in 2008 were first-time voters, and this was the same strategy the DA attempted. The difference for the country’s Democrats then was that Obama actually generated excitement because of who he was and his story. People don’t know Maimane. He came out of nowhere for them. He is manufactured in their eyes. Obama introduced himself in 2004 to the American public and ran for president for two years so that by the time elections came, they knew who he was and what he stood for.
DA party leader Helen Zille knows that black South Africans are suspicious of the DA, not necessarily because they believe she is racist and will bring back apartheid, but they just don’t feel they would be a priority under DA rule.
The DA has done a remarkable job in making Maimane seem like he is, in fact, the leader of the party. He is on almost every DA poster one sees in Gauteng, for example, and there are a few posters peppered with Zille just to remind you she is still in charge. Even though she says the party is not about racialising politics in South Africa, the DA is practicing racial politics. The thinking is that Maimane is black and will therefore appeal more to black voters than Zille will, so the party put him on TV and posters so that the voter can see the DA isn’t a white party.
Unfortunately, many people see Maimane as something of a puppet, that there are powers behind the operation that are not black. So they are suspicious about the agenda of the people behind him. His emergence has been far too sudden for people to trust him.
He is perhaps being groomed as the next party leader after Zille. It is becoming more clear: the DA needs a black leader in order to get an even greater share of the vote. But will the DA membership allow such a thing to happen?
What the DA has done a lot more successfully than the ANC, is to come across as deracialised by making some of its black leaders prominent. In the past, the ANC had many prominent white leaders who were right at the heart of the movement. Not only white, but coloured and Indian too. We don’t see that as much any more, which seems to indicate there is an emergence of racial polarisation in the ANC, which needs to be addressed urgently. The ANC was the most racially mixed party of any in South Africa for a long time. Yes, there are still many people of other races in the ANC, but they are not prominent and are kept as workhorses. The ANC needs to be very deliberate in getting these leaders some airtime.
In this election, too, we will see people vote along racial lines, despite all the work the DA has done. The party has the right idea but it was badly executed.