/ 9 May 2024

From the 2004 M&G election archives

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Supporters of South Africa's main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), sing and dance at the launch of the party's canvassing drive in Crossroads, Cape Town, 08 February 2004, a day after the DA launched its election campaign vowing to prevent a 'one party state' ruled by the African National Congress (ANC) by creating a 'real multi-party democracy'. South African president Thabo Mbeki is due to announce the date of the 2004 general elections in parliament 09 February. AFP PHOTO/ANNA ZIEMINSKI

United States senator Eugene McCarthy once remarked that politicians react to the cold in much the same way as pigs — they stand in a circle with their snouts between the hind legs of the pig in front.

This is the likely outcome of election 2004 for the main opposition parties, none of which can be overjoyed with the results at national or provincial levels. The probability is that the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Inkatha Freedom Party will be driven into a warmer embrace, while the decimated New National Party (NNP) will have no choice but to force its snout more firmly between the hind legs of the ANC.

But DA leader Tony Leon’s forecast that the election would move South Africa decisively towards a two-party system — with the ANC confronting the DA, and opposition minnows driven to extinction — has not been vindicated.

Four of the small opposition parties — Bantu Holomisa’s United Democratic Movement (UDM), the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) — have indeed taken heavy hits or have failed to improve on their miserable 1999 showing.

With about 77% of the vote in, support for the UDM, hard-hit by defections during the floor-crossing period and factional strife, was at 1,85% for the national ballot, while the PAC was holding steady at less than 1%. Support for the ACDP — which likes to portray itself as South Africa’s fastest-growing opposition party — was at 1.82%. Most ominous for the UDM was the projected halving of its support in voting for the Eastern Cape legislature, where after 1999 it was the official opposition. It polled 5.71%, behind the DA’s 9.97%.

Leon’s prediction in the Mail & Guardian that “the moon is made of blue cheese” if Marthinus van Schalkwyk’s NNP improved its 1999 result was also emphatically confirmed. The NNP’s national collapse — from 6.87% in the last election to 2.04% in this poll — was unexpectedly dramatic, even for pundits who foresaw that its pact with the ANC would repel most of the conservative whites and coloureds who make up its traditional base.

This effectively means that the NNP has ceased to exist as a national political organisation. But it appears that some Western Cape voters split their ballot to support the party in the province — where it secured 10.16% of the provincial vote, still catastrophically down on 1999 (38.39%).

So, with the NNP and UDM almost driven to the wall and smaller parties stranded in the shallows, Leon’s DA must have profited. Well, no.

Early on Thursday, with most of the urban vote counted, the DA was looking well set with about 17%. But as the rural count came in, its share started to wane. The DA’s share of the national vote late on Thursday was 15.11%, with some analysts forecasting a final figure of about 13%.

This does not vindicate Leon’s earlier claim to the M&G that his party had “grown tremendously”, and falls short of the 16.43% the Democratic Party and the NNP polled together in 1999. The DA leader must have been aiming to clean up the NNP’s 1999 support, and in his fondest daydreams may have fantasised about 20% of the vote.

What went wrong? A minor factor may have been Pieter Mulder’s Vryheidsfront-Plus, which rallied in the platteland and may have eroded the right-wing support the DA picked up in 1999 through its “Fight back” campaign. The VF-Plus polled 1.32% nationally (0.8% in 1999), but its inroads in white Afrikaner regional strongholds were more significant — in the Free State, for example, it secured 3.37% of the poll.

Mulder ran a canny campaign which de-emphasised race and the hopeless project of a volkstaat for Afrikaners and spoke the modern international language of minority rights and ethnic self-determination.

There were signs — most particularly in a recent Bloemfontein by-election and a municipal poll in Ermelo a year ago — that the romance between white platteland Afrikaners and the DA might be losing some of its heat.

Mulder’s re-projection of the far right may also have struck an answering chord in many young Afrikaners who reject the apartheid past but are increasingly looking for an ethnic political home the NNP and DA cannot provide.

The other spanner in the DA’s works was, of course, Patricia de Lille’s Independent Democrats (ID), which won 2.07% of the national vote and about 8.77% of the coloured-dominated provincial vote in the Western Cape and 6.7% in the Northern Cape.

It seems certain that the ID drew a significant share of the white left-liberal vote, which might otherwise have plumped for the DA. Leon, caught as always between pandering to white and coloured right-wingers and holding the DA’s traditional liberal constituency, exposed his left flank by running a right-leaning campaign that, among other things, endorsed the death penalty. “Suzmanite” DA supporters may have fled to the De Lille in numbers.

The ID may also have mopped up many coloured NNP supporters in the Western and Northern Cape who could not swallow Van Schalkwyk’s mercenary self-surrender to the ruling party, and were attracted to De Lille both as a coloured leader and as a high-profile national figure with a feisty, anti-ANC image.

Even without the De Lille factor, the DA would not have won the Western Cape. By late on Thursday, the ANC had 40.19% of the provincial vote. With the addition of the NNP’s 10.16% vote the ANC-NNP coalition will push just past the 50% mark.

But it is reasonable to assume that most of the ID vote was either taken from the DA or from disaffected NNP voters who would have swollen DA ranks. The implication is that the battle for the Western Cape would have been a significantly closer affair if De Lille had not “put the Pat among the pigeons”.

With 72.22% of the provincial vote in KwaZulu-Natal in, the ANC had 42.36% of the ballot, the IFP 37.86% and the DA, 11.49%. Nationally IFP support had dropped to 5.09% by late Thursday, from 8.58% — a reflection of the party’s continued difficulty in sloughing off its image as a violence-prone, Zulu organisation.

However one views it, election 2004 suggests that South Africa’s opposition remains as fragmented as it was in 1999, and that its main elements have either trodden water or lost ground in the past five years.

And it would be wrong to read too much into the emergence of the ID as an authentic electoral force, as opposed to a spoiler that has drained off support from other opposition groupings. The ID was only able to secure just over 2% of the national vote, and it is quite possible that voters will become disaffected with it, just as they have with the UDM. However, it did marginally better than the NNP nationally.

The fact is that the ANC has not erred catastrophically enough in government to give the opposition a foot in the door. Elections are not won or lost on foreign policy, meaning that Zimbabwe has not been an electoral issue. Official corruption is not sufficiently advanced. And the ruling party drew back on HIV/Aids in time to avert major damage at the polls.

The big freeze is not yet over for the opposition parties. Until their opportunity comes, they have little choice but to huddle together and keep their snouts warm.