The Election Mandela Lost

F. W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela
F. W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela; drawing by David Levine

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…

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