Business Day column: Voters no longer ‘blindly loyal’ as SA heads for democratic maturity

SA COMES of age today. It is election day. Historians might look back on today as the day on which SA achieved democratic maturity. It is the first election in which political parties cannot rely on blind loyalty. It might be SA’s most important democratic election, because how people are voting right now is no longer cast in stone.

Voting during the first decade was determined more by race and ethnicity than policies and performance. The black majority typically voted for the ANC, with whites voting for the DA. The once mighty ANC merged with the once mighty National Party which means that it, not the DA as alleged, is the modern home of the apartheid regime. Early support for the only other "black" party of note, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), relied on Zulu ethnicity. Other promising parties like the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), the Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO), the United Democratic Front (UDM) and the Freedom Front Plus (FFP) became minnows.

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The ANC’s two-thirds majority seemed so entrenched that SA was called a "party-dominant" or "one-party" state with a black majority "ruling party" and a white minority "opposition". Democratic maturity existed only among coloured and Indian voters, whose vote was not ethnically captured.

During democratic adolescence (10-15 years later) it was no longer that simple. The Independent Democrats (ID) and the Congress of the People (COPE) forced many voters to question blind loyalty. "Why are you not loyal to the ANC?" Redi Thlabi was asked by an agitated Radio 702 caller. "You owe it to them because they liberated you." Her winds of change answer was: "I don’t vote for what parties did in the past, but for what they will do in future."

A significant dose of democratic maturity was provided by the dramatic entrance of Mamphela Ramphele’s Agang Party. But instead of restoring "the promise of freedom", her erratic behaviour caused a dramatic exit. The EFF, on the other hand, has been making a decisive contribution to democratic maturity. The EFF legitimises black votes for non-ANC parties. Black voters are not just thinking of voting EFF or DA, but are showing renewed interest in minnow parties. They might embrace any of the 723 registered parties, including such curiosities as the Dagga and Tax Abolition parties.

One of the tenacious manifestations of democratic immaturity has been the perpetuation of the alliance between the ANC, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu). The alliance was sustained by a common enemy, apartheid. It should, in the long-term interests of members and the country, have ended before the 1994 election.

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Its inappropriate bed-fellows rendered it so increasingly and predictably unstable that former president Kgalema Motlanthe says it essentially no longer exists. The demise of the alliance will contribute to democratic maturity by ending the undemocratic inclusion of Cosatu and the SACP in the government. The ANC might resurrect itself as an independent centrist party.

If opinion polls are correct, many black voters have, like Thlabi, embraced mature democracy and will, for the first time, seriously consider not voting ANC. Having considered alternatives, they might still vote ANC, but they will do so because of reflective choice, not blind loyalty. Legitimate ANC support and opposition now reflect the extent to which living standards for black South Africans have risen or stagnated under its watch.

Paradoxically, white voters might be the least democratically mature. A bigger proportion than for any other group may vote today for "their" traditional party unquestioningly.

I thank everyone for extensive circulation and publicity of last week’s column. You might have saved someone from rape and robbery.

Louw is executive director of the Free Market Foundation.

This article was first published in Business Day on 3 August 2016

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