The riter warns that people vote according to material interests and not out of ethnic identification as some parties think, therefore persuing the Indian vote may just be a waste of valuable electioneering time.

Imraan Buccus warns that people vote according to material interests and not out of ethnic identification, as some parties think, therefore persuing the Indian vote may just be a waste of valuable electioneering time.

As the election draws nearer all the political parties are gearing up into full campaigning mode. Even the ways in which we remember Nelson Mandela, that towering political visionary, has been dragged into electioneering.

In Cape Town every election hinges on the so-called “coloured vote”. Here in Durban the so-called “Indian vote” has often proven to be decisive.

The ANC has kicked off the battle by announcing that two Phoenix councillors, Ronnie Veeran and Roy Moodley, have left the DA for the ANC. The ANC statement 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 the assassination of housing activists in Cato Crest, 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 the 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. Pravin Gordhan has been on a walkabout at the Bangladesh market, and 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 about the politics of non-racialism.

The ANC does have two possible aces up its sleeve.

One of those aces 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 the stature of the ANC. There is a good chance that Mfeke and Malema will win the ANC a considerable number of votes.

The other ace is that, as the ruling party, the ANC 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 that were such a powerful force in the 1980s.

It is arguable that the most interesting development in politics in Durban at the moment is the decision of the ratepayers’ organisation in Clare Estate to throw in its lot with the shack dwellers’ movement in the area. This unity across race and class in the interests of a “Clare Estate for all” is an inspiring break with the divisions of the past, divisions that are often repeated when political parties approach citizens as if we were first and foremost members of coherent racial blocs.

But whether we like it or not, the myth of the “Indian vote” is not going away soon.

* Buccus is Research Fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and academic director of an overseas university study programme on political transformation.

** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers

Sunday Independent