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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.

  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.

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