/ 8 March 2020

What Bernie Sanders needs to learn from black voters in South Africa

Bernie Sanders Flickr
Sanders-style economic populism is not a wholly convincing message for many black voters in southern states. (Flickr)

I love Bernie Sanders. Like many people outside the United States, I understand that his social democratic policies are moderate, rational and do not differ from those in Europe.

But it seems to me that Sanders and his campaign are failing to understand why many older black voters are not supporting him, even though on paper his policies would be the best for the majority of African-Americans.

It appears older black voters do not believe Sanders can win white voters away from US President Donald Trump.

Sanders-style economic populism is not a wholly convincing message for many black voters in southern states. I suspect that older black people with long memories are sceptical about Sanders’s proposition for a “multiracial solidarity of working people” because they have not forgotten that poor and working-class whites have historically been the energetic grassroots base of white supremacy in the 20th century.

There is no reason for black people in the American south to believe poor white voters will stand with them in the Trump era.

As such, they would rather pit Joe Biden against Trump, likely calculating that enough conservative and moderate white voters will be amenable to a Biden presidency; enough to take Trump out and restore some sense of “normalcy” to US politics. 

As columnist Elie Mystal argued in The Nation, Biden’s upsurge “is buttressed by chunks of the black community who have determined that most white people are selfish and cannot be trusted to do the right thing. They believe if you make white people choose between their money and their morality — they will choose their money every time and twice on election day.”

Although economic populism should, in theory, “appeal” to a dispossessed group of people, it may not if it threatens to put African-Americans under the same political tent as a constituency that has led historically led lynchings in the American South.

South Africa has a similar history of white grassroots racism. In his article on the 1922 Rand Revolt in South Africa, historian Keith Breckenridge shows that the white working class was as militantly anticapitalist as it was militantly racist towards black people. “In its defeat, the organised white working class secured the long-term impoverishment and unskilling (for want of a better word) of the African working class. Far from being a spontaneous, white, working-class uprising against capitalist power, a major strand of the 1922 strike was a deliberate, violent assault on the political organisation of their African working-class peers.”

Of course older black people do not need historians to tell them about the racist history of white working classes — they already bore the brunt of it.

Why black workers trust the ANC

In South Africa, many people within the “intellectual and academic left” have consistently misunderstood why black workers, especially those who belong to trade unions, do not abandon the ANC.

In the world of academia particularly, it used to be common to hear lefties predicting the break-up of the tripartite alliance or believing that a “true” workers’ party would emerge to challenge the ANC.

But this has not happened. The majority of black people trust the ANC with their lives in spite of corruption — and even horrors such as Marikana. In fact, millions of poor black voters placed billionaire capitalist Cyril Ramaphosa into the presidency. Black voters also trust that the ANC will continue to defend transformational policies such as affirmative action that explicitly recognise historical black exclusion.

The reason is because the ANC is a long-enduring social institution of black life; many voters choose it pragmatically because it can deliver social policy-minimums that are crucial to black communities.

Similarly, black voters in the US South trusted the opinion of Congressman Jim Clyburn, who has a long and deep history in civil-rights politics in the American South. He convinced black voters that Biden is the dependable ally not only for removing Trump, but in building on important policy legacies of former president Barack Obama, such as the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare).

Additionally (and academic lefties do not like to hear this), many black people aspire towards more inclusive capitalism, not less of it. Economic power is seen as the path to out of the shadow of white oppression.  

One difference however, is that unlike so many people in the US, black South Africans believe that a strong and capable state is necessary for building a foundation for their economic liberation. What the ANC government offers is the assurance of a state that it will take care of the poorest, even if not achieved perfectly.

Black working people want a government that can relieve them from “black tax”, which refers to the historically disproportionate economic obligation that black people face in taking care of their families.

Sanders’ Medicare for All message needs to explicitly demonstrate that a US government that can guarantee universal healthcare is the best path to building long-term black wealth.  Recognising this black aspiration is crucial for Sanders to win the older black vote.

Nomalanga Mkhize is a history professor at Nelson Mandela University