The Election Mandela Lost

Although the victory of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress in the historic South African elections in April was widely expected, the ANC actually lost badly to F. W. de Klerk’s National Party in the Western Cape—a major province that includes Cape Town, the country’s second-biggest city and the site of the National Parliament. This loss went largely unremarked by the international press, but it was a serious one for Mandela and for the liberation movement, whose members had fought desperately in the last weeks of the campaign to stave it off. Their defeat has deep implications for the country’s future.

The standard explanation for the startling capture of a regional government by the party of apartheid is that the Western Cape does not have a black African majority; it has a “coloured” (or “mixed-race”) majority, whose members, it was said, did not feel drawn to the black-dominated ANC and simply decided to vote for the white masters they already knew. But this explanation begs more questions than it answers. The Northern Cape province also has a coloured majority, and the ANC won there. The Western Cape was, moreover, an anti-government stronghold throughout the 1980s. In truth, something extra-ordinary happened in and around Cape Town after 1990, causing a stampede of poor and working-class coloureds toward their traditional oppressors.

President F. W. de Klerk himself seemed stunned by his unexpected popularity. During the last days of the 1994 campaign, at a National Party rally in the Good Hope Centre, an indoor arena in Cape Town, I watched his eyes fill with tears as he stood before the vast, overwhelmingly coloured crowd and was greeted by wave after wave of frenzied ovation. People were singing, chanting, dancing on their seats, screaming his name. “Papa, save us!” one man shouted, over and over, as if the bald, lawyerly Afrikaner on the stage were some post-apartheid Messiah. Addled, perhaps, by all this unlikely emotion, de Klerk proclaimed, “This election will be the real, final birth of the new South Africa, which we have been waiting for for so long.” This was the incumbent president, speaking like a weary supplicant from the margins of apartheid society.

But the National Party had in fact reinvented itself to an astonishing degree since de Klerk’s release of Mandela and the unbanning of the ANC and other political parties in February 1990. The violent, racist, Afrikaner nationalist, militarized political machine that had ruled the country since 1948 had abruptly become, according to its own publicity, a party of liberal reformers, contritely hustling for black and brown votes. The National Party suddenly stood firmly for human rights, market economics, multi-party democracy, and a depoliticized police and army. Its spokesmen especially liked to reiterate the party’s longstanding commitment to “minority rights,” which were now understood to include protection for coloureds and Asians, as well as whites, from the potential tyranny of African rule.

Practically speaking, with the arrival of non-racial democracy, the National Party’s only hope of winning even a single provincial election lay with the coloured majority in the Western Cape. Acknowledging that coloureds had suffered atrocious treatment under apartheid, the party made “forgiveness” a central theme of its campaign in the province, and F.W. de Klerk, at the rally at the Good Hope Centre, seemed to attribute his ecstatic reception to the success of this appeal. After removing his glasses and wiping his eyes, he said, “I want to pay tribute to you who have been prepared to forgive what has happened in the past, who have been prepared to open your ears and your arms for me, and made me feel safe in those arms.”

Most of the people classified as coloured under apartheid—a classification vehemently rejected by anti-apartheid activists as racist and meaningless—are Afrikaans-speaking, and descended directly from the large Cape slave population of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Ethnically, their main antecedents are East Asians, East Africans, Europeans, and the slight, brown-skinned Khoisan people who were living in the Cape when the Dutch arrived in the seventeenth century. They are an extremely heterogeneous people, heavily burdened by landlessness and their dependency on whites. As a result “coloured nationalism” has never become a significant political force. Overshadowed by the African majority of some thirty million people (as compared with three and a half million coloureds, and five million whites), and by the military and economic might of the whites, coloureds have not had a central part in national politics. In the Cape, however, there is a longstanding tradition of coloured political activism, particularly among the skilled workers, traders, and professionals of Cape Town, where left-wing intellectuals have for generations been prominent in resistance politics and progressive forces have, at least in theory, fought white-minority rule in solidarity with the national African majority.

But relations between the Afrikaners, the self-consciously “white” descendants of the early Dutch settlers, and the coloureds have for centuries been both tangled and intimate. The two groups share, in large measure, a language, a religion (Dutch Reformed), and a great many ancestors. There is even a vivid precedent for the National Party’s recent interest in the coloured vote, as Hermann Giliomee, a political scientist at the University of Cape Town, points out.1 During the 1920s, in the relatively liberal Cape province, coloured and African men who met a property qualification had the right to vote (both groups were later stripped of it: Africans in the 1930s, coloureds in the 1950s) and “non-whites” actually made up more than a quarter of the voters in the Cape Peninsula. The National Party, fearing an influx of immigrants from England who might eventually out-number Afrikaans-speaking whites, embraced the “brown Afrikaners” as their natural allies, and succeeded in capturing enough of the coloured vote to win the 1924 election against the relatively pro-British South African Party of Jan Christiaan Smuts. (Even the ANC supported the National Party, on anti-imperialist grounds, in 1924.) The gesture turned out to be one of pure expediency, and the Nationalists soon abandoned their coloured supporters in their pursuit of the white-supremacist Afrikaners of the northern provinces.

During the apartheid era, the National Party government sometimes seemed particularly intent on discriminating against coloureds—“to make our colour sense clear before the world,” as one MP put it. Some of the most notorious apartheid legislation, including the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act and the 1950 Immorality Act, which stiffened the penalties for interracial sex, was directed primarily at coloureds; sex and marriage between whites and Africans had long been forbidden. In Cape Town, thousands of coloured families were forced out of their homes in the city, which had essentially been declared “white,” and were packed off to live in grim townships in a sandy waste known as the Cape Flats. Of course, Africans, who were obliged, as coloureds were not, to carry passes when they were in “white” South Africa, were being banished to impoverished rural bantustans on a far greater scale than anything coloureds suffered. Still, by the 1980s, most coloured people seemed to be deeply and permanently estranged from the National Party. I worked as a teacher in a coloured high school on the Cape Flats in 1980, when revolutionary militancy was already the dominant mood and political style. That mood only deepened in the years that followed, as rebellion spread from the cities to the small towns and the bantustans, dooming white-minority rule.

The strategists of the National Party hoped to preserve its power by creating a “black middle class” as a buffer between the government and the angry masses, and they saw coloureds (and Asians) as essential to their success. Thus in the early 1980s they created a “tri-cameral parliament,” which offered political representation to coloureds and Asians in the form of junior legislative chambers, while continuing to exclude the African majority. This reform effort failed, attracting only undistinguished politicians as candidates and serving mainly to increase resistance. Indeed, it led to the founding, in 1983, of the United Democratic Front, an anti-apartheid coalition launched in a coloured township on the Cape Flats specifically to organize a boycott of the tri-cameral parliament. The UDF, which was closely aligned with the outlawed ANC, soon became the largest aboveground resistance organization in South African history. Despite intense efforts by the government to repress it, the organization had a leading part in the anti-apartheid struggles of the 1980s, and when those struggles came to a climax in the dramatic release of Mandela and the unbanning of the liberation movements, no region of the country seemed more joyful than the Western Cape.

As the 1994 elections approached, I asked various ANC officials how they accounted for the growing success of the National Party among the coloured voters of the Western Cape. “Gangsters,” one told me. “The National Party’s only strength is money, so they pay these skollies [hoodlums] to disrupt our rallies. Their only supporters in the coloured community are gangsters.” If that were the case, then the poll takers finding 60 and 70 percent support for the National Party in coloured townships were talking only to gangsters—an unlikely possibility. Many ANC officials blamed the National Party’s election campaign, which featured its traditional theme of the black peril (swartgevaar)—but this time appealing to the coloureds’ rather than whites’ fears of Africans. Some of the more historically minded leaders blamed the effects of the apartheid years. “The Nats have successfully contaminated our people with their racism,” said Franklin Sonn, one of the prominent coloured leaders of the ANC.

In reality, the ANC had made a number of serious political mistakes in the region since its unbanning, starting with its dissolution of the UDF, which many coloureds saw as “their” organization. In dissolving it, the ANC seemed to acknowledge the truth of the government’s longstanding charge that the UDF was merely a front organization for the ANC, when in fact the UDF was a genuinely popular front, an umbrella for countless smaller groups—local associations of taxpayers, students, women, professionals, all united in their opposition to apartheid.

After February 1990, however, the country’s attention shifted—from local struggles to national negotiations, to the new constitution, to the return of its heroes from exile and prison. And many members of the grass-roots groups in the UDF were not happy about the centralized organizations—the ANC Women’s League, the ANC Youth League—that they were now invited to join. As Jeremy Cronin, a senior official of the South African Communist Party and himself a returning exile (and former political prisoner, and former grass-roots activist), delicately observed, “Soldiers and diplomats, which are what, after all, most of the exiles are, don’t really tend to trust or understand grass-roots democracy, do they?”

Activists in the Western Cape felt more estranged than their counterparts elsewhere. Peninsular in both geography and psychology, the Cape was ill-suited to put aside its parochial concerns and take part in the grand drama of liberation that came to dominate South African politics during the long, violent, enervating period of constitutional negotiations between 1990 and 1993. Thus the ANC started to drift in the region. Ineffectual, unpopular leaders were sent in from outside and the cream of the local political talent left for Johannesburg, where national political careers were being made.

The biggest break the National Party got in its unlikely campaign to win coloured sympathies came after its own repeal, in 1986, of the pass laws. For the repeal brought a flood of new African arrivals in the Western Cape. Indeed, between 1982 and 1992, Cape Town was reckoned to be one of the fastest growing cities in Africa, with an annual population increase of 13 percent.2 The city’s African population more than tripled during that period, putting tremendous pressure on coloured housing and employment, especially as other apartheid laws, such as the Group Areas Act (residential segregation) and policies that gave coloured workers precedence over African workers, were abolished. The government’s scheme to enlist coloureds as junior partners in apartheid had not succeeded in buying off coloured militancy, but taking away the few privileges of the coloureds seemed to ignite a new mood. Suddenly the question was being asked: Who will protect us from these invading African hordes, who are even poorer and hungrier and angrier than we are?

The ANC did not provide especially reassuring answers to this question. “Affirmative action,” which was part of the ANC’s election platform, frightened many coloured workers, and as the 1994 campaign got underway the congress sent African firebrands like Winnie Mandela into Western Cape coloured townships, where she spoke not in Afrikaans, the language of working-class coloureds, but in Xhosa, which few if any local coloureds understood. The National Party candidates, meanwhile, spoke Afrikaans, and spoke it with an intimate knowledge of its coloured audience derived from the centuries spent together on the farms and in the towns of the Cape. The National Party also benefited from the support of the Afrikaans-language press (which had for decades crudely demonized the ANC as a Communist terrorist organization) and, until the last stages of the transition, the bilingual national television service—the two main sources of political news for coloureds.

The ANC’s failure to appeal to the Western Cape’s coloured majority as coloureds was not mere obtuseness. Ethnicity was, after all, the first principle of apartheid; ethnic distinctions were therefore anathema among the resistance (the government’s convenient fiction of a “Coloured Population Group” was an especially noxious case) and “non-racialism” the abiding creed of the ANC. And yet the fears of the established Cape proletariat were, as any historical materialist could see, quite rational, and “identity politics” among people who had for centuries been in an agonizing cultural position—neither “European” nor “African”—clearly could not be ignored. Even on the rare occasions when the ANC mentioned ethnicity, it always used the politically correct term “so-called coloureds,” which somehow came off as a slight against the people so called.

The ANC’s candidate for premier of the Western Cape was Allan Boesak, for years a prominent coloured minister of the Dutch Reformed Church. He could be eloquent on the subject of coloured identity. “In terms of psychological damage, there is no group in this country that has suffered so much, that has been distorted so much, as the people classified as coloured,” he told an interviewer.3 “The National Party told us, through apartheid, ‘You can only be a person, if you’re coloured, when your personhood is reflected in the acceptance of white people. If a white person tells you that you are something special, then you are something special.”’

Boesak credited the Black Consciousness Movement of the 1970s for making him realize “that my humanity is not dependent on the acceptance of white people.” But Black Consciousness was essentially a student movement that reached few working-class coloured people, whose psychological vulnerability to manipulation by powerful whites remained high. Boesak, moreover, was a disastrous choice to head the ANC’s ticket in the Western Cape. A fine public speaker and a skilled fund-raiser, with extensive international contacts, he had been a national leader in the UDF but had fallen from grace after government agents revealed an adulterous affair with a white woman. He subsequently left his wife, married another white woman, and abandoned the Dutch Reformed Church, where he was a high official, for politics, all of which hurt his reputation with the broad mass of coloured people, who tend to be religious and socially conservative. Boesak is also unloved by ANC activists, whose standard complaint is that he is shallow, self-involved, and overly fond of the limelight. His selection as a candidate had been, by all accounts, Nelson Mandela’s idea, imposed after Mandela became aware of the ANC’s dangerously low standing among coloureds. Mandela apparently took the view that Boesak was coloured and famous and therefore ought to be able to turn things around.

Another flawed notion—one to which I had subscribed myself—was that the tri-cameral parliament had been a total flop. In truth, the success of the election boycotts led by the UDF was widely overestimated—the apathy of some voters and the intimidation of others were generally overlooked by anti-apartheid observers. At the same time, the networks set up to hand out patronage under the tri-cameral system were more extensive and effective than most opponents of apartheid understood. At least I was surprised by the number of people in the coloured townships in 1994 who, when I asked about their politics, mentioned food parcels or public-sector jobs distributed by their tri-cameral MPs (most of whom had joined the National Party after it opened its doors to non-whites in 1992). And many of the new National Party supporters were now looking forward to more benefits. “I want something with the Parliament,” one coloured organizer told me. “I think there will be vacancies in catering, in the restaurant there. I’ve applied for a supervisor’s job.” A moment later an older an older woman, who seemed to have confused me with someone from party headquarters, spoke up. “Hey, man, don’t they need somebody at Parliament to help them with their flowers? They use such a lot of flowers, and I can get them flowers from Jo’burg.”

Between these modest hopes for patronage and the messianic dreams of liberation to be found among the young ANC campaign workers at their headquarters down the road, the contrast could hardly have been more stark. But here was another factor generally overlooked by political observers in the Western Cape: the large number of apolitical, working-class coloureds who had little or nothing to do with the mass uprisings of the 1980s. How many of them had just been waiting to be acknowledged, and how many received that acknowledgment from the National Party rather than the ANC?

Aware that they were facing defeat in the Western Cape, the ANC’s strategists decided in the closing weeks of the campaign to take their message directly to the people, convening a thousand and one “court forums”—hastily organized meetings in the coloured townships, addressed by popular ANC leaders. I went to an ANC court forum in a rundown section of the Cape Flats. “WELCOME TO NAUGHTY TOWN,” said the first graffito I saw when I parked. It was late afternoon and the wide, dirty streets were jammed with people. And yet the court forum, which consisted of a flatbed truck parked in an empty lot and a speaker with a bullhorn, was sparsely attended. The only residents anywhere near the truck were bare-foot children, scampering to collect free ANC flags and buttons. Small groups of adults watched from windows and stairwells and yards, but none seemed to heed the constant, amplified calls to come closer.

The speaker was Gregory Rockman, a local hero from the days when he was a rebel coloured policeman on the Flats who exposed human rights abuses inside the police force. Rockman had been the founding president of an anti-racist labor union for policemen and prison guards; he had been dismissed from the police, and was now an ANC candidate for the National Parliament. It was remarkable, I thought, that even he could not draw a crowd, especially since he seemed to be a fluent, forceful orator, and he was speaking the local Afrikaans dialect. But if I wanted to interview residents, I found I had to wander well beyond the empty “forum.”

No, man, the ANC is wasting its time here,” a Mrs. Jacobs told me. She was leaning on a low fence, wearing an apron. “They can do nothing for us. My husband is a qualified electrician, we have four children, and for the past eight months he has not been able to get a job. And do you know why? Because every time they tell him no because he can’t speak Xhosa! I’m behind on my lights, behind on my rent, and if Mandela gets in it will only get worse! Mandela is causing all these problems for us. They’re not going to recognize the coloured community once they’re in Parliament. Gregory Rockman is well-respected, but he won’t be able to make a difference.”

A middle-aged woman who had joined us, and who had obviously been drinking, declared, “I was born under the NP and I will die under the NP!”

A third woman, also tipsy, confided, “I’d rather be robbed than killed. The NP robs, but the ANC kills.”

The sun was setting into Table Mountain, and a small crowd finally began to gather around the truck, where Rockman was growing hoarse. I started talking to a neatly dressed young man who was listening noncommittally, his infant daughter asleep on one shoulder. He introduced himself as Abraham, and said he worked as a file clerk at an insurance firm. “I’m not political,” he said. He spoke softly, so as not to wake his daughter, and thoughtfully. “But I can tell you, I won’t vote for the ANC, and neither will the other people here. Most of us are Christians, and the ANC is not seen as Christian. We really don’t know them, so we don’t know what they will do. What we see is that they fight, that they kill each other. And that may be us next, dying. The ANC doesn’t really know us, either.”

Abraham nodded toward a tough looking woman who had climbed onto the flatbed with Rockman. “Do you see that woman there, in the white doek [headscarf]? She’s the ANC organizer for this neighborhood. She is also the owner of a shebeen just here.” A shebeen is an illegal tavern. “So, you see, she knows nothing about organizing people, and that’s one of the reasons you don’t see a crowd here. There were no announcements. She is just using the ANC, and the ANC doesn’t even know it. If the police come to her shebeen now, she just tells them, ‘I’m with the ANC. Go to the office and ask them, and let me be.’ But she causes a lot of problems in this area. Her customers sell drugs, and they stab and shoot people. So she is really hurting the ANC here.”

The microphone was now being passed around a motley crowd gathered near the truck, whose words were hard to understand.

Those are the shebeen-keeper’s customers,” Abraham said. “They’re all drunk, and they’re just talking nonsense.”

But were there any community leaders, I asked, actively supporting the National Party?

Abraham thought a while. “Authentic leaders? No. I don’t know of one. But the people are supporting them, anyway. The NP is going to get most of the coloured votes.”

At that point, a small convoy of cars showed up, parking around the flatbed truck. A dozen ANC activists emerged, clearly come to lend Rockman moral support. They were a strikingly better-dressed, more prosperous-looking lot than the neighborhood residents. “That’s my doctor, Julie Jaffer,” Abraham said, indicating one of the arrivals, a svelte young Muslim woman.

I asked him about Dr. Jaffer.

She’s wonderful. Very intelligent, a good doctor, very respected.”

And did her support for the ANC not influence him or his neighbors?

You don’t understand,” Abraham said. “People like Dr. Jaffer can cope. They make good money. They aren’t afraid they’re going to lose their jobs, or lose their housing. But poor people, working people, we can’t cope. Prices are going up all the time, rents are going up. We’re afraid. That’s why we don’t support the ANC.”

Abraham was right: I didn’t understand, since on economic issues the ANC was obviously the party of the poor, while the National Party represented the interests of business and the better-off. Of course, this was not, as people throughout South Africa were fond of saying, a normal election. And the issues at stake had become especially murky, somehow, in the Western Cape. The National Party, counting as it was on a fit of mass amnesia among coloured voters, seemed to prefer it that way, even appropriating the ANC’s main campaign slogan, “Now is the time,” for its advertisements. But the NP’s appeals to racism and regional chauvinism—suggesting that the relative prosperity of the Western Cape was being threatened by teeming, impoverished, burdened black Africa—were blatant. Eighty thousand copies of an eighteen-page “photocomic,” which included a prediction that the ANC’s next slogan might be “Kill a coloured,” were distributed in the Western Cape before an independent election commission forced its withdrawal on the grounds that it was “undoubtedly inflammatory.”4

Such embarrassments—and there were many others—had no effect on the polls. The ANC could not even seem to gain any ground by publicizing vile remarks by President de Klerk’s wife, Marike, about the coloureds. In 1989, a Sunday newspaper had quoted her saying, “They are a negative race. The definition of a Coloured in the Population Register is someone who is not black, not white, not an Indian—in other words, a ‘non-person.’ They are remnants.” When I asked coloured supporters of the National Party about these remarks, made less than five years earlier, they invariably shrugged them off: “That was before.”

Neither did people seem fazed by the selection of Hernus Kriel, de Klerk’s minister of law and order, as the NP’s candidate for premier of the Western Cape—though Kriel was, according to the polls, even less loved than Boesak. An unreconstructed Nationalist hack, he had been the official in charge during a seemingly endless series of police scandals and abuses. The National Party, conceding his unpopularity, simply kept Kriel from public view. Instead, the National Party blanketed the Western Cape with the avuncular visage of F. W. de Klerk.

Many coloureds really did call him “Papa.” They gave him credit for everything from ending apartheid and releasing Mandela to opening an American-style shopping and entertainment complex on the Cape Town docks. De Klerk’s public piety also went over big. “He always mentions God on television,” I heard several people say. “You never hear Mandela doing that.” But what was most popular about de Klerk among his coloured supporters clearly seemed to be his public admission of the sin of apartheid, his public plea for “forgiveness.”

The issue that most concerned coloured voters, however, was violence, and many told me that, while they were not racists, they could not help but observe how violent Africans were, which made them wary of an African-led government. And it is true that most of the horrendous political violence in South Africa in recent years has been among Africans, and that there is no ordinary law enforcement in the vast new African townships and squatter camps on the Cape Flats. And yet, violent crime in coloured districts is far worse than it is in African districts. The per capita rates for rape, murder, robbery, and incarceration for coloureds in some years has amounted to more than those for whites, Asians, and Africans combined.5

The law-and-order question was, therefore, paramount among coloureds, and since the National Party had presided over the many years of criminal mayhem in their neighborhoods, it should have been vulnerable on the issue. But by some peculiar logic of incumbency the National Party was able to present itself, quite successfully in the Cape, as a force for order battling the unruly elements erupting from below; and the ANC, with its emphasis on social justice, could never turn people’s fear of crime to its advantage. Indeed, the government lost no opportunity to identify its opponents with the violence of the teen-age “comrades” who had helped the ANC pursue an insurrectionary strategy during the mid-eighties. A stark “Stop the Comrades” poster seemed to be everywhere in white and coloured neighborhoods.

Elections are, of course, equally about the past and the future. The National Party’s task, when it came to coloured voters, was to convince them that its past record—its mass evictions and brutal arrests—gave no indication of what it would do in the future. And I found, among some of its more fervent coloured supporters, a startling readiness to rewrite history. An older woman told me, “The rats were as big as cats in District Six”—referring to the most famous of the mixed-race neighborhoods declared “white” during apartheid. “The people were driven out of District Six for their own good. The rats would have bitten the babies to death. They would be as big as sheep now.” Even the white National Party officials to whom I mentioned these sentiments seemed stunned—what did these people think President de Klerk was apologizing for? Nobody I spoke with seemed to recall that the party had abandoned its coloured supporters after winning office in the 1920s.

As some ANC officials claimed, raw racism accounted for much coloured support for the National Party. I lost count of the number of people who told me that they “would not vote for a kaffir” (nigger) or “would never call a black man baas.” Such people were receptive to the National Party’s never-ending reminders that black rule has been a disaster in much of sub-Saharan Africa. (This was a popular theme with white voters, too, of course.) At the same time, it must be said that, collectively speaking, black South Africans have never been known for their enlightened attitudes toward their coloured countrymen. A friend who teaches in a Cape Town high school with both Xhosa and coloured students describes the communal tensions this way: “Almost all the kids are racist, but the Xhosa are more charming in their racism. They’re so confident about it. They just say, ‘You people have nothing—no language of your own, no culture. You are remnants.”’

Still, it was the coloureds who were now the National Party’s one hope of hanging onto a major piece of power: the Western Cape. White voters, accustomed to the lavish attentions of the NP election machine, were feeling, one kept hearing, badly neglected. I mentioned this to a coloured NP organizer, and she laughed happily. “Too bad for them,” she said. “It’s our turn!”

I thought I caught a glimpse of the future at the huge, end-of-campaign National Party rally at the Good Hope Centre. Of the 12,000 people filling the arena, an estimated 98 percent were coloured. A tiny group of whites—mostly party officials—sat down in front in reserved seats while the ecstatic brown masses of the new National Party danced and sang in the stands all around them. At least half of the crowd seemed to be gloriously drunk, in the middle of a Saturday afternoon, and few people, I thought, listened to the speeches—not even de Klerk’s. They were far too busy enjoying themselves. But the contrast between their twisting, rhythmic dancing and singing and the stiff, uneasily smiling white people on the stage—who included Marike de Klerk, of the unfortunate remark—struck me as an institutional arrangement not likely to last. The National Party owes its remaining regional power almost entirely to the coloureds. In the Western Cape, it is now in effect a coloured party, and it will soon have to start reflecting that fact—it will have to find reputable coloured leaders (those it now claims are largely nonentities), and otherwise deliver the democratic goods.

In only one of the eight other new provinces did the ANC lose, and that result was dubious: Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party won a bare majority in its fiefdom of KwaZulu/Natal, where voting was marred by fraud and intimidation, and the ANC’s acceptance of the outcome reeked of a deal with Buthelezi. But in the Western Cape the ANC had lost fairly and decisively, by an astounding 20 percent of the vote. “We are going to be living in a volkstaat!” one ANC activist said. It is still not clear how much power the provincial governments will retain in post-apartheid South Africa, but the Western Cape will almost certainly stand apart from whatever process of political and social change the ANC tries to carry out. (There is already talk of moving the Parliament from Cape Town to a new complex to be built in the center of the country, near Johannesburg.)

From mortified and angry ANC activists, some coloured and others not, I heard much post-election talk about the cynicism and treachery of the Western Cape majority—Jeremy Cronin, of the Communist Party, had referred earlier to “an anarchistic, self-deprecating community that loves to take leaders down a peg.” And it was a shocking defection, in many ways, suggestive of slaves rallying round their master. Yet it was not, I think, without its political logic.

Similar defections in other parts of the country are now not unimaginable. In this election, the ANC was the beneficiary of centuries of pent-up political frustration. Its base of support is broad and fissiparous, however, a complex alliance of disparate interests, any number of which may break away—possibly even before the next elections, in 1999. The great tension within the alliance today is between the labor movement and the ANC’s—which is to say the country’s—leaders. Organized labor, represented institutionally by the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the Communist Party, was by far the strongest bloc in the ANC’s “patriotic front” election alliance. But since the election there has been a series of industrial strikes by, among others, auto workers and supermarket employees; and the government’s surprisingly un-sympathetic response provoked the first public criticism the Communist Party has made of the ANC in decades. (These strikes were settled in August and early September.) The new government’s economic program, which seeks, above all, to reassure foreign investors, has been, moreover, a bitter surprise to militant workers, whose leaders have been increasingly outspoken about the high salaries and lavish perks enjoyed by the new parliamentarians, many of them former trade unionists.

That the ANC’s base of support may split along class lines now seems a clear and growing possibility, and the opportunities are also growing for an independent workers’ party to oppose the ANC. What is more, the ANC, which is still less a conventional political party than a social movement, lacks the structures, funds, and experience to prevent such splits. Since the ANC is the dominant partner in the interim “government of national reconciliation,” its transformation into a conventional political party should proceed swiftly. But so will its ideological progress toward more conservative positions.

The party’s effective control of the state purse may give Mandela and his immediate successors some political breathing room; so may the electoral weakness of the small parties to the ANC’s left, as well as the divisions within the South African working class, which includes everyone from the unionized workers in the cities to the heavily exploited women in the countryside and the vast, desperate pool of the unemployed. But in the longer term a major confrontation between the ANC’s leadership and the movement’s left wing seems unavoidable.

Some fragmentation among the more conservative or apolitical sectors of the ANC’s base can also be expected, probably along ethnic or regional lines. These splits will most likely be about patronage, about the division of spoils, and they may be sudden. (In mid-September, several coloured townships near Johannesburg erupted in violence during a oneday general strike called by community leaders who charged that the new government was showing “favoritism” toward neighboring African townships, such as Soweto, in its housing policies.)

When politically uncommitted people begin to see that one party—whether an ethnic or regional insurgency, or a declining party reinventing itself—is likely to succeed in grabbing a piece of power, they tend to scramble quickly onto the winning side. That, in large part, is what happened in the Western Cape this year. It was a strange spectacle mainly because the region bolted before liberation. More severe tests of the ANC’s non-racial and egalitarian ideals will undoubtedly come before very long.

  1. 1

    Hermann Giliomee, “Afrikaner Identity and Franchise Contraction and Expansion in South Africa,” paper delivered at the “Democracy and Difference” conference, University of Cape Town, May 5–7, 1994, pp. 12–31.

  2. 2

    Race Relations Survey, 1993–1994 (Johannesburg: South African Institute of Race Relations, 1994), p. 81.

  3. 3

    South African Broadcasting Corporation television broadcast, April 12, 1994.

  4. 4

    Argus newspaper, Cape Town, April 13, 1994.

  5. 5

    L. Glanz, W.P.Mostert, and B.E.Hofmeyr, An Analysis of South African Crime Statistics, Convictions for the Period 1956–1988 (Pretoria: Human Sciences Research Council, 1992), pp. 37–40. See also Africa Watch Prison Project, Prison Conditions in South Africa (Human Rights Watch, 1994), p. 17.