The false dichotomy between interest (rationality) & Identity

Aubrey Matshiqi | 27 July 2016

One of the battles that are amongst the most difficult to win, especially in the period leading up to an election, relates to the attempt to convince political observers that voter preferences are not reducible to a single factor or consideration. This is perfectly understandable given the fact that a lot of what parades as political analysis is driven by the mainstream media as a site of 'intellectual' battle as well as the fact that the sentiments of media practitioners are often confused with popular sentiment in the same way that the views of those with access to the internet are deemed to be representative of the population as a whole. And by 'the population' I am referring to the tendency to think that certain circles of opinion are representative on the basis that they mirror, or parrot, opinion. Consequently, what we have is a political discourse which consists of competing and conflicting echo chambers and in each chamber, views are reproduced and disseminated as part of a canon of rational opinion, usually with levels of thoughtfulness that diminish in inverse proportion to the levels of religious commitment attached to a particular political view. What we end up with, is a political discourse that lacks appreciation for complexity and, therefore, constitutes evidence that a lot of learning that takes place in society is thoughtless, something which makes it easier for dominant interests in to reproduce 'dominant' views. Elections are no exception in this regard.

Since the advent of democracy in 1994, our discourse has been dominated by the following arguments about the meaning of voter preferences and electoral outcomes:

  • The success of the post-apartheid democratic project is contingent on the capacity of black voters to transcend racial identity by voting for political parties other than the African National Congress (ANC).
  • South Africa may not be a de jure but is a de facto one party state.
  • The electoral politics of South Africa is a politics of a lack of substantive uncertainty.
  • The only way South African politics will become competitive will be through a split in the ANC.
  • South Africa suffers from a gap between the procedural and substantive dimensions of our democracy.
  • Political re-alignment is nigh.

The problem with South African politics is two-fold: First, the majority of South Africans have, for too long, been unable to envision the future of the country without the ANC and the Democratic Alliance (DA). This has caused some to develop a binary perception of the reality of our electoral politics. Among them are those who believe that the quality of our democratic project will improve the day the majority of black voters install the DA as the governing party of the country.

A variation on this theme is the argument that ANC supporters vote with their hearts. The assumption is that a vote for the DA is a product of rational thought.

This argument ignores a few things:

  1. White voters kept the National Party in power for forty-six years.
  2. This means that for the past sixty-eight years, South Africa has not had a tradition of strong opposition. This, of course, is true if we exclude the decades of struggle against white minority rule.
  3. In the space of just a decade or three general elections, between 2004 and 2014, the ANC lost thirty seats in the National Assembly. This is a shift that has happened primarily because of the preparedness of ANC voters to countenance voting for another party. In the 2011 local government elections, the ANC lost Gatesville in Cape Town for the first time since 1994.

There is an over-reliance in South Africa on party politics. The irony is that this may be one of the by-products of the "liberation movement model" approach to understanding current South African politics - according to which the people are the liberation movement and the liberation movement is the people. This understanding of the relationship between the people and 'their' liberation movement assumes that the liberation movement will always act in the best interests of the people, hence the demobilisation of civil society formations after the ANC was unbanned in 1990. In other words, while the interests of the people are not fixed, the organisational manifestation through which they are expressed might be viewed as immutable. For the opposition, therefore, the only means by which change can be achieved is through the removal of the liberation movement, which in a democratic setting, has become the dominant party. This means that success in the democratic project is contingent on opposition forces coalescing around the dominant opposition party.

Success, therefore, is about the alternation of power between two dominant parties fighting for control, over the same 'motive force'. As the ANC argues, 'the people', particularly those who are not just 'black in general' but are also 'African in particular', constitute the motive force of the National Democratic Revolution of which the anti-apartheid struggle was a subset and beyond which lies the historic mission of creating a society that will be the antithesis of apartheid society, but which must itself in the end, be qualitatively better than its antithesis.

This, of course, is an understanding of politics that does not take into account the fact that change must be a function of what happens in both the party political and formal institutional space, as well as the non-formal space that is occupied by civil actors in society - and the way in which they shape politics, make choices and pursue interests outside the party political and formal institutional spaces.

Politics as understood in this manner will help us appreciate that there is a range of factors which make people choose to become political in a sense broader than their involvement in electoral politics. This means, therefore, that in the realm of electoral politics, voters, including those who have been voting for the ANC since 1994, will be informed by considerations other than their racial identity in making the decision to vote for another party or not to vote at all, but may seek change by other means.

The challenge for political parties is to avoid the error of thinking that those who vote for the ANC have a fixed identity and recognise the fact that politics in general and electoral politics in particular will be shaped by the evolving identities and compelxities of citizens in their incarnation as voters and non-voters, that is in their incarnation as participants in the 'formal' institutionalised and organised politics, and its interaction with the informal/non-formal variant of politics.