The May 8 general elections are still being spun by the various parties to best flatter themselves.
The ANC consoles itself that its 58% is “only” four percentage points down. This, Ramaphosa and his media fans sagely agree, suffices to be interpreted as the New Dawn mandate that the beleaguered president needed.
Some in the ANC have also surreptitiously tried to share in the unalloyed success of their renegade offshoot, the EFF, which doubled its share to 11%. As they point out, if the two parties vote together - or merge - they would command the kind of Constitution-changing majorities that the ANC had in the heyday of president Thabo Mbeki.
Over 25 years and six general elections, the ANC has proven the remarkable solidity of its vote. Compare this with Zimbabwe, where Zanu-PF would have been annihilated by the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) after only 20 years, were it not for political skulduggery. The MDC’s growth was ignited by Zim’s spectacular economic collapse, triggered by land expropriation without compensation.
In South Africa, despite fragile economic circumstances and looming land expropriation, the DA has not, yet, benefited from a mass rejection of the governing party.
The DA’s response to losing a few hundred thousand votes to the Freedom Front Plus (FF+) has been foolishly petulant. It basically said, “good riddance to bad rubbish”.
It is childish behaviour. In a grown-up world politicians must often make deals with the devil, and no party can be too judgemental about who votes for them. All that matters is that whatever the origin or motivation of these supporters, the party retains its values.
The DA should know this better than most. After all, it managed to retain its core liberal identity despite an influx of former National Party, white, mostly Afrikaner voters. In 1994, its predecessor, the Democratic Party, drew only 340 000 votes. With the collapse of the Nats, that rocketed to more than 1.5million in 1999.
In the 2004 election, when the New National Party joined the DP to form the DA, support rose to just under 2million votes. There was no evidence that these new supporters - who now outnumbered the old-guard liberals by six to one - in any way diluted the party’s core principles.
On the contrary, it is the perception of this very same group, many of whom are now FF+ voters, that it is, in fact, the party’s own leadership that adulterated DA principles. It did so by trying to attract black voters from the ANC by offering them a race-based, adulterated liberalism.
The DA has long known that is on the horns of a demographic dilemma: most of its support is from racial minorities but, to challenge for power, it needs to attract substantial numbers of black votes. Despite - or because of - its ANC-lite policies, it is not.
And for as long as voting in South Africa continues to shadow race, the DA will always be on a hiding to nothing. In 1994, South Africa’s population was 38.6m, of which the minorities that tend to support it comprised just under 24%. Last year the population hit 57.7m, of which the ANC-leaning black portion had increased to 81% of the total.
It’s not all gloom, if the DA could pull itself together. There are an enormous number of black South Africans who are alienated from the ANC but have been unable to find a political home. This can be seen in a steadily falling percentage of new voter registrations and voter turnouts.
No doubt the DA will do a lot of navel-gazing as to why it is not drawing these critical, floating voters. A pessimist might conclude that it probably doesn’t matter what the party does.
For things to change, it might take the same kind of cataclysmic wake-up call that roused MDC supporters. But as long as the ANC can dodge South Africa slamming into the economic buffers as Zimbabwe did, or a similarly destructive event, the ANC will probaby retain a comfortable majority long into the future.
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