By Arnout Nuijt
With less than six months to go, South Africa’s national elections already fuel many speculations. As I wrote earlier, the big game changer may be Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters. The EFF may grab up to 10% of the national vote (one poll put them even at 12%), mostly votes previously cast on the ruling ANC. That will not cost the ANC its absolute majority, as it last time won a comfortable 65%. But the opposition Democratic Alliance will also be looking to steal votes from the ANC by targeting its (new middle class) voters. The DA thinks it can improve its score of 17% of 2009 dramatically. It also boasts it will take the key Gauteng province (the economic and political centres of Johannesburg and Pretoria) in the process. But a focus on Gauteng, with an uncertain outcome, contains some risks for the DA.
In my previous contribution to Rotterdam Week on South Africa’s coming elections I omitted two factors that may influence the 2014 outcome: the fate of COPE and the risk of the DA’s strategy. COPE (Congress of the People), an offshoot of the ANC, was the great promise of the 2009 elections. But the party performed badly and may now lose heavily. The 7,5% of votes it received then may be cut down to less than a third of that (COPE barely took 2% in the 2011 municipal elections). The ANC meanwhile has been luring back some of COPE’s members and part of COPE’s voters may follow suit. The remaining former COPE voters may be scattered over the DA, the EFF and Agang SA (a new party aiming for ANC middle class voters).
So, while the ANC may lose a lot of votes to the EFF, it should gain a little back from COPE. In fact, South African political observer Stephen Grootes reckons the ANC might still keep some 61% of all votes cast.
But just how much of the ANC’s voters will switch to the DA? The DA is certainly doing everything to attract black voters. It has Africanized its candidates list in Gauteng and has a black leader in parliament. Helen Zille, the party leader and Western Cape province premier, has also said she reckons her successor as party leader will be black. The DA’s strategy to appeal to a more wider voter base is “the right thing to do”, because a party mainly crewed by whites and coloureds will be marginally effective. It’s the new black middle class the DA is after, a group that may number as much as four million these days, almost as much as the mainly middle class white population group.
But can the party really take Gauteng province and challenge the ANC nationwide? Its campaign may be “the right thing” to do, but is it realistic? The election will no doubt heat up and the ANC will fight hard to keep its traditional voters behind them. Observers are undecided about the DA’s prospects for high growth. So why is the DA aiming high in Gauteng? Why does the party not try to duplicate its success of taking Western Cape province in 2009 in neighbouring Northern Cape? Because progress in Gauteng is what matters numerically. Gauteng is South Africa’s most populated province with over 12 million people. That means that winning just 5% or more new votes there has more significance for the national result that taking absolute control of a sparsely populated province like the Northern Cape.
But besides the fact that the strategy might fail to attract enough black voters when push comes to shove, it also contains some risks. More blacks in the party at top positions and in leading branches throughout the country could alienate hard core white voters that have been seeking refuge with the DA in the post-apartheid period. The logic of the DA’s “black” strategy will mean that white South Africans have much less career options in the party or as politicians in general. Only extremely talented and culturally sensitive white politicians may in future continue to rise through the ranks of the party.
The DA has been critical of Black Economic Empowerment and other forms of positive discrimination of black people. Now it has to apply similar measures in order to capture more black votes. That’s the logic of it all. Though many of the party’s white voters may understand this strategy very well, it may also cause some concern among those whites that have not been very successful at adapting to post-apartheid South Africa. But apart from the DA, where else can they go?
To the right of the DA are two outfits that could profit from the DA’s strategy. First there is the Freedom Front Plus, the party of choice for the conservative white farming community. The FF+ however has been increasingly marginalised in the polls ever since 1994 (when it was still Freedom Front) and received a mere 0,8% in 2009. It’s not clear how it will fare this time. The FF+’s leader is now a deputy minister for agriculture in the ANC government, which was either a grand or incredibly smart gesture by the ANC (or both). The party still supports the two miniature white homelands of Kleinfontein (near Pretoria) and Orania, that seek secession from South Africa. These towns have grown organically over the last few years, but are not taken serious. But even the FF+ is on shifting sands. In the Western Cape the party is now seen standing up for coloured communities. It must be clear that white political parties are definitely a thing of the past.
But in the 2009 elections we saw a glimpse of another sort of secession. The tiny Cape Party participated in the Western Cape provincial campaign, by aiming for secession of the Western and Northern Cape provinces (as well as some parts of the Eastern Cape). These territories contain a majority of white and coloured people and are mainly Afrikaans speaking. According to the Cape Party, these provinces should break away from the rest of South Africa and form their own independent state. The Cape Party in the end received just 2.500 votes and its present status in unclear. But an Africanized DA could in the future prove a new boon to secessionists.
Yet there is another risk in the DA’s strategy. At the moment the DA’s real power base is the Western Cape, the only province of South Africa it governs. It took the province in 2009 with a minimal majority of 51% and now it needs to consolidate its grip. It cannot allow the ANC to take back the Cape. This is the party’s real challenge and it’s crucial for its survival. After the 2009 elections the DA smartly merged with the Independent Democrats, a party led by anti-apartheid icon Patricia de Lille. De Lille was later elected mayor of Cape Town.
On paper at least the DA now can expect to get the 5% votes that in 2009 went to the ID, so it should be able to poll a comfortable 56%. Some disillusioned COPE supporters may switch as well to the DA in the Western Cape, but the party may then be at its maximum reach. That is, if it loses no voters to the ANC or others. The ANC meanwhile has been stepping up its campaign already against the DA, but it will be attacked from the rear by the extremist EFF. The latter will no doubt steal some percentage points from the ANC, while the ANC in its turn may gain a few votes back from COPE. All this may lead the DA to believe that the province is safely in their hands. But of course it never is.
The third province where the DA has potential for growth in 2014 is – as we wrote in our previous article – the Northern Cape. If it fields the right mixture of mainly coloured politicians, including former leaders from the ID (the Independent Democrats had their best score in this province) and maybe COPE (that also did well in 2009 here), the party can end up with at least 25%. That would be nowhere near enough to take the province. For that to happen it would be necessary to attract scores of ANC voters, for instance by showing the progress that has been made by the DA while running the neighbouring Western Cape province. Only then might the ANC just possibly lose its absolute majority (of 61% in 2009) in the province. This development will be assisted by the rise of the EFF, which appears to be very active in the Northern Cape. And that would create an interesting situation. Such a result, with the DA taking say 30%, the ANC hovering around 50% and the EFF at 10%, would put the DA in an excellent position for the 2019 elections.
So if the party plays its cards well and manages the risks, expect some fireworks resulting from the DA campaign, like the party promises. Disgruntled white voters might not run away yet, as there are no alternatives. In Gauteng the DA must be able to at least crawl forward. But the biggest scores may come from the Western and Northern Cape. And eventually taking the Northern Cape might not be such a bad idea. The resulting political map of South Africa (the west firmly in DA hands) would take the steam out of any future secessionist movement.