The end of race-based politics in South Africa?

South African anti-apartheid activist Mamphela Ramphele, left, greets Helen Zille, right, head of the South African Democratic Alliance political party during a news conference in Cape Town on Jan. 28. The former anti-apartheid activist who was close to Steve Biko merged her party Tuesday with the Democratic Alliance. (Nardus Engelbrecht/AP)
South African anti-apartheid activist Mamphela Ramphele, left, greets Helen Zille, right, head of the South African Democratic Alliance political party during a news conference in Cape Town on Jan. 28. The former anti-apartheid activist who was close to Steve Biko merged her party Tuesday with the Democratic Alliance. (Nardus Engelbrecht/AP)

Joshua Tucker: The following is a guest post from New York University political science PhD candidate Adam S. Harris.  Follow him on twitter @a_harris4.

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Yesterday, the main opposition party in South Africa, the Democratic Alliance (DA), announced their presidential candidate for the 2014 elections. Interestingly, until the moment that Mamphela Ramphele was announced as the DA’s presidential candidate,  she was not a member of the Democratic Alliance. Until today, Ramphele was the head of her own political party, Agang SA, which she launched last February. Even more interesting, this is an unapologetic effort to give the traditionally white DA a black face.

When DA party leader Helen Zille, a white woman, made this announcement at a news conference today, she made clear references to race politics. She spoke of a political change that will come about when the “old political formations become obsolete,” which is a clear reference to race. South African politics has a long racialized history through colonization and apartheid. Since the end of apartheid, the African National Congress (ANC), a predominantly black party, has dominated politics. The ANC’s only real opposition since 1994 has been the Democratic Alliance, which the black majority largely sees as a party that represents minority white interests and would bring back apartheid if it won power (a recent survey found that 52 percent of black South Africans between the ages of 15 and 34 think that the DA would bring back apartheid if it won the next elections, see report here). This image is largely misguided but is nonetheless real. In short, post-apartheid South African political competition very much still pits black against white.

If the DA hopes to gain more than 20 percent of the vote (in the most recent elections it received 17 percent of the vote, making it the second largest party in parliament, with the ANC holding 66 percent of the seats), then it must move beyond its traditional support base of white and Coloured voters (which in South Africa refers to a heterogeneous ethnic group with European, indigenous South African and Southeast Asian heritage), who together make up 18 percent of the population, and appeal to the black voters who make up 79 percent of the population.  To do so, it must shed its white and privileged image, and presenting a black presidential candidate is the most obvious way to do this. To this effect, Zille expressly stated here that “there is no way a party with Mamphela Ramphele as presidential candidate will bring back apartheid.” Likewise,  Ramphele said that her appointment as presidential candidate for the DA shows that the political opposition forces in South Africa are moving politics beyond race, which will allow politics to focus on issues. She said here that “we are taking away that race card and putting it in the dustbin,” which means that the ANC can no longer use race against the DA. Is this true? And what effects will Ramphele’s candidacy under the DA banner have on the 2014 elections?

Before we can answer these questions, we need to understand the political backdrop against which this appointment takes place. Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) has governed South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994 with at least 63 percent of the vote (South Africa is a parliamentary system with proportional representation). While the ANC faces many challenges in the upcoming elections, including voters disgruntled over corruption and a lack of development progress, it is a near certainty that the ANC will win the 2014 elections with at least a 53 percent majority (others argue it will be closer to 60 percent). The ANC has largely remained electorally dominant since 1994 for two main reasons: struggle credentials and painting the main opposition as a white party that will bring back apartheid. Ramphele can address both issues.

First, the ANC was the main driving force in the struggle against apartheid and played the leading role in dismantling apartheid, which means it has very strong “struggle credentials.” Many voters still have a strong allegiance to the party that gave birth to democracy. The DA has no such struggle credentials or following. The DA is the reformed Democratic Party (DP) that was the official opposition to the National Party during apartheid. The DP did its part to oppose apartheid from within, but it was still part of the system and because it was, whites did not suffer the injustices of apartheid. The DA has not been able to successfully poach any ANC officials with strong struggle credentials and thus remains without these coveted credentials. Until now. Ramphele, while never actually a member of the ANC, was actively involved in the struggle against apartheid through the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM). She was the life partner  of Steve Biko, who founded the BCM. Biko, a South African Malcolm X in many respects, was beaten to death while in police custody in 1977 at age 30. While she was actively involved in the BCM in her own right, Ramphele’s personal connection to Biko (as mother of two of his children) gives her unquestionable struggle credentials. The DA now has its struggle credentials.

Second, as mentioned above, having a black woman as the DA’s presidential candidate makes it a lot harder for the ANC to claim that the DA will bring back apartheid or that it is just a party of white madams and baases (derogatory names for whites who hail from the apartheid era). Thus, it will now be an uphill battle for the ANC to paint the DA as a white party, which it so successfully did in the past, according to work by political scientist Karen Ferree.

Technically, Ramphele’s merger with the DA and her position as presidential candidate make the DA credibly non-white and pro-black. It could also, as Ramphele said, remove the race card from politics and provide black voters with a non-ANC, struggle-credible alternative option for which to vote (such a party has been nonexistent since 1994). Will it have this effect in reality? The answer rests on the reaction of the black population, which could be positive or negative. If Ramphele is perceived as the struggle-enriched, ANC-alternative that the DA hopes she is, then the DA is likely to gain some additional black support in the 2014 elections. However, if Ramphele is seen as a sell-out of the black cause and a black puppet in the hands of Zille, then this political maneuver is likely to have little effect on the vote choices of black South Africans in the 2014 elections.

Is this really a turning point in South African political alignment? Zille, Ramphele  and the DA think that this move will take race out of the picture in South African politics. If history tells us anything, it’s that race will continue to play an important role in South African politics, but this role is likely to change. The ANC will have a harder time convincing people that the DA is still white, especially since it will be Ramphele’s face on the ballot on Election Day, but that does not mean it will not try. In fact, Gwede Mantashe (ANC secretary general) reacted to today’s events thusly: “It’s a rent-a-leader and rent-a-black-face” (see here). The ANC will still use race to negatively differentiate the DA from itself and other parties.

Instead of trying to convince people that the DA is only for whites, the ANC is likely to try to convince voters that those who support the DA are either 1) traitors to the liberation struggle (which is a claim it has made before) or 2) are not proudly or thoroughly black. We can expect to hear more name-calling such as “coconut” (meaning black on the outside but white on the inside), which is one of the ANC’s favorite terms for the DA’s black parliamentary leader, Lindiwe Mazibuko. It is likely that “black authenticity” will be more prominent in the 2014 elections than it has been in the past.

As the DA sheds its white image through more credible appeals to black voters, the issue of race will no longer focus on black vs. white but on the degree of one’s blackness. The ANC will likely try to make true blackness synonymous with ANC support. Thus, today’s events do signal the beginning of a realignment in political competition from black vs. white to black vs. not black enough; however, it does not signal the beginning of the end of race as an important factor in South African politics.

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Sarah Binder · January 29, 2014

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