How race still colours South African elections

Coloured woman in Cape Town (file photo)
Image caption Some mixed-race people feel the ANC government is ignoring them

South Africans go to the polls on Wednesday with the delivery of basic services like water, housing and jobs among the issues influencing the way people vote.

Although voting patterns still largely follow racial lines, opposition Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille appealed to voters to "take the next step and make the issues the issue in this election" and not race.

President Jacob Zuma told crowds in North West province recently that on the question of services, the African National Congress has made progress since 1994 and reminded people that the damage done by apartheid was "too huge" to fix quickly.

But aside from the tussles between ideology and delivery, the two major parties are trying to court the coloured (mixed-race) vote at a time when members of this community have accused the ANC of "Afro-chauvinism".


"Why did Nelson Mandela have the struggle if it's now just the other way round with blacks in control rather than whites. I mean what's the point, what about coloureds? All the opportunities are going to the blacks now," says Samantha Orlane.

Hers are not the words of a jaded old cynic, but of a bright young teenager who describes herself as coloured.

She lives in the predominantly mixed-race neighbourhood of Mitchell's Plain, in Cape Town.

If she were born three decades earlier, the ANC which fought apartheid and finally won her the right to vote, would have described her as black. Now that is a term that would make her shudder with unease.

Before the advent of the country's democracy in 1994, anyone involved in the fight against apartheid was considered black, whether they were African, of mixed race or of Indian descent.

It was more about your point of view than your skin pigmentation.

But now the ANC's principles of "non-racialism" are being held up to scrutiny and the unity that helped to achieve freedom looks under threat.

"There's an oversupply of coloureds in the Western Cape," declared government spokesman Jimmy Manyi in a televised broadcast posted on the internet that has now become legendary.

Mr Manyi's comments have been interpreted by some as tantamount to a declaration of war against the coloured community.

The Western Cape is the only province not controlled by the ANC and also the only province where people of mixed racial origins are in a majority.

Raw deal

Mr Manyi might have used the phrase as part of a discussion about jobs before he assumed his powerful position, but the fact that he has retained his government post has led to accusations that the ruling ANC is pandering to the whims of Afro-chauvinists at the expense of the rest of society.

During the years I lived in Kenya people used the phrase "It's our turn to eat" to describe an attitude of entitlement, based on ethnic background.

I didn't expect to find it here in South Africa. Yet the conversations of the past few weeks have forced me to think again.

There are plenty of people who echo the sentiments expressed by Mr Manyi - that racial demographics in South Africa determine access to jobs.

Mr Manyi suggests that people should follow the money, spread themselves around.

It is an opinion that classical economists globally would no doubt applaud - a kind of Thatcherist "get on your bike", South Africa-style.

But in a country where the scars of apartheid have had less than two decades to heal, his words smack of racism - the kind of racial engineering that the apartheid government was infamous for.

Yet he has articulated a sentiment that many people share.

You don't have to go far to find black voters who believe they're getting a raw deal and who understand what Mr Manyi was getting at.


Nationally the black community account for some 80% of the population. They make up the majority of the unemployed.

But is their sense of being sidelined down to racial competition, poor management or simply inflated expectations?

Mirvish Mbhita works hard to keep his car-wash business afloat in Cape Town's mainly black township of Gugulethu.

He is irritated by what he sees as the coloured community's collective amnesia about the past. He thinks they should be grateful for what they are today.

"If you know the meaning of the word struggle, you stick to the ANC," he bellows.

"Around here, if there are 40 people in a job, there will be only two blacks and 38 coloureds," he claims.

"It's about greediness," he says, about a community he believes is guided by economics and not ideology.

But Zwelethu Jolobe, a professor from the University of Cape Town's Centre for African Studies, says that with the realisation of democracy, the ANC is now evolving.

"Being black is now part of the broader politics of who gets redress, affirmative action and employment equity and the ANC has gone through a shift," he says.

"With the ANC being in power for so long, its social base has changed. It's become more conservative, wealthier and a lot more nationalist and that is now reflected in the kind of politics you see," argues Mr Jolobe.

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Media captionSA elections considered litmus test for Zuma and the ANC

The colour card

But the ruling party knows that it cannot afford to alienate the coloured vote.

In a bout of fevered internal electioneering in a province dogged by factionalism, it elected a coloured chairman, Marius Fransman, to its Western Cape office over a popular black candidate.

Mr Fransman - perhaps not surprisingly - is keen to play down the perceived "colour divisions".

He argues that the ANC has distanced itself from Mr Manyi's comments and the row has been exaggerated to suit the whims of a mischievous opposition in the run-up to the municipal elections.

Certainly its political opponents are doing all they can to ensure that perceptions of cronyism and corruption within the ANC win them fresh votes beyond their traditional white constituency.

In fact newspaper articles speak of the Democratic Alliance "blacking up" to win more votes. They launched their election manifesto in the struggle heartland of Soweto, south of Johannesburg.

But Mr Fransman concedes that race will continue to remain a delicate issue for years to come and the ANC mismanages it at its peril.

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