Whether we like it or not, the myth of the “Indian vote” is not going away soon, writes Imraan Buccus.
With the election three days away, political parties are wrapping up their campaigning. It has been a frenzy and even the ways in which we remember Nelson Mandela, that towering political visionary, has been dragged into the electioneering.
In Cape Town every election hinges on the so-called coloured vote.
In Durban the so-called Indian vote has often proven to be decisive.
The ANC has been intensifying its meetings with minority communities in recent days and often declares that today’s ANC is the same ANC of struggle stalwarts like “Yusuf Dadoo, Monty Naicker, Billy Nair and Mewa Ramgobin”.
Some may well argue that today’s ANC is, very clearly, a very different organisation from the one that people like Dadoo, Naicker, Nair and others supported. The idea that someone like Dadoo would countenance Nkandla, or Guptagate, is just not on.
And the ANC should not think that Indian people will only vote for a party with Indian heroes. The idea that Indian people may cast their vote on the basis of principle, or support of particular policies or personalities rather than out of ethnic identification, should also be factored in by the ANC. The ANC is committed to non-racialism, after all.
The Indian vote has always been something of a myth. Back in the 1990s Adam Habib, now vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, first made his name when, as a lecturer at the former University of Durban-Westville, he wrote a paper debunking the myth of the “Indian vote”.
Habib showed that in upper-class Indian areas, Indian people overwhelmingly voted for the ANC, while in working class areas there was strong support for rival parties. This pattern was explained by the fact that upper-class Indians were well placed to benefit from affirmative action and were therefore thriving in the new democracy. On the other hand working-class and poor Indians were losing jobs in clothing and shoe factories in great numbers and had often found that the new democracy had made their lives more difficult.
In other words, people didn’t vote out of ethnic identification; they voted in accordance with their material interests.
Of course the Minority Front always did its best to mobilise Indian people on an ethnic basis. And every now and then, demagogic leaders have tried to do the same. But the bulk of the Indian electorate has had no truck with ethnic politics.
But both the leading political parties prefer the myth of “the Indian vote” to the reality that Indians are a diverse group of people in terms of class and political principles and ideas. The ANC is pushing particularly hard to win over Indian voters in this election. Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, Ravi Pillay and Maggie Govender have been hard at work in historically Indian areas. All three are excellent, committed and principled politicians and need to be wary of the politics of non-racialism.
The ANC does have two possible aces up its sleeve. One of those is that the fascistic anti-Indian ravings of Phumlani Mfeka and his Mazibuye Africa Forum, along with the anti-Indian elements in Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters, have left some Indian people feeling rattled.
In this climate, the ANC’s tactic of showing its historical connection to heroic Indian activists of the past, and using its current Indian leaders to campaign, may make some Indian voters feel more at home in the party than they do outside. And of course, one can’t compare fascistic movements with a party of the stature of the ANC. There is a good chance that Mfeka and Malema will win the ANC a considerable number of votes.
The other ace up the ANC’s sleeve is that, as the ruling party, it just has more power to get things done. This fact may well appeal to some less well-off voters who really depend on state services.
But no doubt some will turn to opposition parties and some will just not vote at all. And some will turn to the kind of grassroots activists who were such a powerful force in this city in the 1980s.
But whether we like it or not, the myth of the “Indian vote” is not going away soon.
* Buccus is a research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and academic director of a university study abroad programme on political transformation.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.