[ANALYSIS] Race, the Final Frontier

Luthuli House itself would probably have to agree that the ANC appears to be divided along multiple lines at the moment. Public spats over factional, class and urban/rural divides are the order of the day, while more fault lines are appearing. On top of it, in the last few months another massive development appears to be happening. It now appears that some in the ANC are giving up on ever winning back the votes of white people. In other words, one of the foundational pillars of the party – non-racialism – may be buckling, or even disappearing completely. This could have profound implications for our politics in the near and long-term future, and for social and political dynamics in South Africa in general.

In a country with our history, our demographics, and our generational inequality along sharp racial lines, it is not overly difficult for minority groups, and particularly white people, to become paranoid, to over-react to provocations or comments they see as racist. It indeed is a complicated dynamic, but fear (and perhaps guilt) are certainly a part of what drives it. So, it is important not to suggest that a few incidents signify a particular change. It is also important not to over-emphasise race when class or other issues may be responsible, or at least partly.

That said, they should not be ignored either, if there is evidence of a pattern emerging.

On Monday morning, the spokesperson for embattled Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini, Lumka Oliphant, refused to conduct an interview with Radio 702’s Xolani Gwala in English. Despite having just done such an interview with the SABC’s Leanne Manas in English a few minutes earlier, she insisted on conducting the interview in Zulu. Gwala cut short the interview, saying that he did not understand her refusal, and that the medium of the station is English.

This appears to have been no isolated decision on the part of Oliphant. The day before, her boss Dlamini had refused to answer questions from eNCA’s Karyn Maughan and others about the social grant payment contract. While she did not mention race in that exchange, on Monday afternoon, while speaking in Cape Town, Dlamini was reported as saying that the black journalists took notes, but the “others” came with a different agenda. It appears no definition was given for the word “others”, but presumably she meant the journalists who asked her questions who happened to be white. She went further at that event, also saying that only black journalists could understand the importance of social grants. (Presumably forgetting that white people get grants too.)

The Social Development Department is not alone. On Friday, President Jacob Zuma, in an address to the National House of Traditional Leaders, said, while speaking about land, that “black parties should unite, because we need a two-thirds majority to effect the changes to the Constitution”. Putting aside for a moment the fact that his very own party had refused to join up with the Economic Freedom Fighters in Parliament the day before on the very same issue, it is important to note that he did not offer a definition of what a “black party” actually is. Obviously he means parties other than the DA. But how could he define the DA as not a “black party”? It has a black leader, many of its top officials are black. It has a much higher percentage of white members and leaders than other parties, but how does he define it? There is no answer to those questions, and it would not serve his interests to offer one.

In many ways, this comment is an extension of his comments during last year’s local elections, in which he asked about the DA, “Where does a black man get the guts to team up with the oppressor?”.

It is easy to simply ignore Zuma’s statement as coming from a man playing his last card as he faces the possible end of his political career. But the last few days have also seen a small furore over a tweet by Esethu Hasane, the spokesperson for Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula. Last week he tweeted, “Only Western Cape still has dry dams. Please God, we have black people there, find another way to punish white people.” He is not the only government spokesperson to have made comments along these lines. And no one in the ANC, or in government, has criticised him for this.

Alone, these incidents could be taken as the comments of people under pressure, or as some people in government just not considering the impact of their actions. Still, taken together, these sentiments could suggest that the ANC, or more accurately, parts of it, are changing in a fundamental way.

It is sometimes forgotten that the ANC was formed in 1912 primarily to bring together the different groups of people who were oppressed under the white colonial system of the time. By the 1950s, and certainly by the time of the Freedom Charter, and the ANC’s message that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white”, non-racialism was a core belief of the organisation.

Since then, the ANC has been able to say, perfectly correctly, that it was fighting for a “better life for all”, that it was about trying to improve things for all South Africans. Its track record in what used to be called “nation-building” in this regard is just phenomenal. It alone did what no one else could have done: it brought South Africa’s people together. It was able to integrate our society (at least in urban areas, perhaps not so well in the rural ones) in a way that was successful, harmonious, and almost entirely peaceful. Considering where we came from, this achievement is second to none in our history, and ranks up there with some of the greatest achievements by any political body in recent human history.

You would think that for a party in a democracy to turn its back on that in any way would be a one-way route to political suicide. Surely it’s something that you wouldn’t want to shout from the hilltops in any election. The mere fact that some of the ANC people are now unashamedly using race as the wedge issue tells us more about their own personal agendas than what would be best for South Africa’s ruling party.

There is some evidence of the personal agenda angle in the fact that these tendencies have been relatively isolated so far – it’s not as if the party as a whole is making these comments officially. When Zuma used race in last year’s elections, no one in the party followed him there, probably because they knew it would not work. There is very little evidence that Oliphant’s stunt on Monday morning’s 702 interview was popular with the party, and no Cabinet ministers have rushed to offer their support to Dlamini.

This could be because it may be very hard for those who wish to use race to gain traction. Many, perhaps most, voters grew up during the Mandela era and its aftermath. They bought into what he espoused. They accept that integration in all areas, the economy, socially, on the sports field, at school, the workplace, everywhere, is the only route to go. And that is because there is no workable alternative. Of course, that doesn’t mean they’re happy, or believe the economy has transformed enough. But it may mean that any crudely racist message will simply not work.

But there is another, bigger problem for the ANC. We have pointed out before what could happen if the ANC stopped being for everyone in this country. That it would start to divide much more quickly than it is now. To put this crudely, and in an over-simplified fashion, if it decides to no longer bother to win white votes now, why not give up on the votes of coloured and Indian people next year? And once that happens, why bother with people who speak Pedi, or Ndebele? And then, surely what would follow would be a division along other language lines.

In other words, it would seem to follow that if the ANC stops being a party that aims to include whites too, it could find itself moving against the very reason it was formed in 1912.

In the meantime, other dynamics would not be standing still. Our society is surely only going to become more integrated, not less so.

And the evidence that people would vote for an explicitly “black party” and against one claimed to be “white” is thin. The Pan Africanist Congress did not do so well at the ballot box. The Economic Freedom Fighters have struggled to break through the 10% mark, even with their leader’s national name recognition. And the ANC’s own behaviour in attacking the DA rather than the EFF in elections suggests their polling has told them their biggest threat is actually the DA.

And if the ANC were to go down this racially divisive route, where could people who believe in non-racialism find a home? Which party has a black leader with a white wife, and coloured children? Who would really be able to campaign as “Mandela’s real legacy”?

The various comments and actions by these ANC leaders and members on this issue are probably a reflection of the dominant dynamic of the year so far, the sort of “fracturing” of the ANC, in which there is simply no political centre to hold any more. But those in the party who disagree with these tactics should say so, otherwise those who are speaking in this divisive manner will be seen to speak for all of the ANC.

And it is that message that will be remembered in 2019.

This column first appeared on Daily Maverick. Go to www.dailymaverick.co.za for more comment and analysis.

Stephen Grootes is the senior political correspondent for Eyewitness News and the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk. He is the author of 'SA Politics Unspun'. Follow him on Twitter: @StephenGrootes