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Elections – forty years on by Glenn Moss

8 May 2014

Many of the political generation who embraced a sort of independent radicalism in the 1970s found it difficult to decide which party to support in Wednesday’s national and provincial elections.

Of course we celebrated the right of all South Africans to vote. Forty years ago, we doubted we would live to see a universal franchise and that, by itself, was a reason to vote with enthusiasm on 7 May.  

I had carefully considered the call by a group of reputable elders to vote ‘No’ to the ANC. The ‘Sidikiwe! Vukani!’ campaign suggested that those who might have historically voted ANC, but rejected the way the party has developed and performed in the last years, needed to indicate this clearly in their voting choices. They needed to send a clear message about the nature of the ANC’s current leadership, the corruption and cronyism endemic throughout state institutions, and the racial and ethnic mobilisation that has again entered our politics. Saying ‘no’ to this, argued the campaigners, required a strategic use of the vote – spoiling one’s ballot rather than voting for the ANC, or voting strategically for one of the smaller parties.

Still undecided by the time I entered the polling booth, I took a plunge and entered my crosses on the ballot papers without feeling particularly comfortable about my choices.   Watching results flow in, I had a sense of unease, uncertain that this election will herald any changes of significance in the way government, or the formal representative politics on which it is based, will function. 

Thinking back to the past, I remembered the conundrum which some of the ‘new radicals’ faced in the 1970s. It was 1974, exactly forty years ago. A general election – only, of course, for white voters – had been called. The Progressive Party had a reasonable chance of adding to its representation in parliament (only Helen Suzman),  especially in Johannesburg and Cape Town. How, we pondered, should student organisations like the National Union of South African Students (Nusas) advise white students on its affiliated campuses to use their vote?

An extract from The New Radicals, my book due for release in the next few days, recalls the debates. A whites-only general election

'created the opportunity to examine the policies, practices and interests of the parliamentary opposition parties. Although there was some support for the tiny Progressive Party on the Nusas campuses, white parliamentary politics were severely compromised and none of the opposition parties could claim to represent the aspirations and interests of anything more than a small minority of South Africans.

Gordon Waddell, one of the senior Anglo American executives who had met with students during our occupation of the company’s head office in 1973, was running as a Progressive Party candidate in Johannesburg. He asked me if the SRC would support his campaign ... This engagement compelled me to think more carefully about how students would respond to the forthcoming election, and I proposed to the Nusas National Council that we issue a communiqué on student participation in the electoral process. This would not advise them how or if to vote, but raise questions about the nature of parliamentary opposition and whites-only elections.

The proposal stirred up considerable controversy among the members of National Council. Some of the presidents of affiliated SRCs had links with the Progressive Party, and Nusas regularly invited Helen Suzman to speak at student gatherings, to assist in liaison with government, and to take up the cases of student leaders denied passports, arrested or detained. Suzman had been an honorary vice-president of Nusas and was unwavering in her defence of human rights. Despite differences in approach, she often supported Nusas in times of sustained attack by the government and its security forces.

At the same time, many in the student leadership were deeply critical of the Progressives’ market-driven economic policy, the proposal for a qualified franchise, and the party’s relationship to monopoly capital (especially Anglo American). The development of the Wages Commissions, which were challenging wage levels and policies on trade unionism, was throwing relations between Nusas and the Progs into even sharper relief.

After a tense debate at National Council, Nusas issued a carefully worded communiqué expressing ‘grave reservations about the electoral and parliamentary process’. It noted that ‘Less than one quarter of the population was entitled to cast a vote, that democracy could only begin to function on the basis of a universal franchise and that no white political party could claim to represent the true interest of black South Africans’. Labelling the politics of the major political parties contesting the election as ‘white supremacist’, Nusas encouraged students ‘to decide whether to vote in terms of what they ascertained from questioning candidates and from studying the policies of the parties’.

It was a compromise statement, reflecting efforts to straddle political differences within Nusas. Some representatives on National Council had wanted to call on white students to boycott the election, and attack the Progressive Party’s economic policies and links to white capitalism. Others argued that we should draw attention to banned organisations with historical legitimacy in representing the disenfranchised. This would have further challenged political parties claiming the mantle of opposition to apartheid. The eventual statement was relatively mild. Students were being advised to inform themselves, ask questions, think about the issues, and then decide how or if to vote.

The reactions from established liberalism were disproportionate, if predictable. The editor of The Star newspaper suggested that Nusas had a ‘death wish’. Helen Suzman flew into a fury, and two senior Nusas office-bearers went to see her at home, taking a bouquet of flowers as a peace offering. Suzman – quite rightly in my view – threw them and their flowers out. They had no mandate to see her and apologise, and the issues in dispute involved deep differences in political interests and strategies. Bunches of flowers would not change this.'

- An extract from The New Radicals. A Generational Memoir of the 1970s (forthcoming), Jacana Media.

The parallels with Wednesday’s election are few and far between. In 1974, only a very small minority of South Africa’s citizens were entitled to vote. The organisations which represented the interests and aspirations of the majority were outlawed, their leadership exiled and imprisoned. The ruling party seemed all-powerful. TheBroederbond, secretive and largely unaccountable to party membership or the electorate, enabled a self-perpetuating elite within the National Party to caucus and advance their interests. The party had a strong alliance with unionised labour, which secured the votes of white workers. It was difficult to see any impetus for change.

The established political system created few opportunities for serious challenge, and the majority of the electorate supported the party in power, no matter how problematic the priorities and conduct of its leadership. It seemed unlikely that any challenge to what existed would come about as a result of existing political parties contesting elections.

I saw few parallels between Wednesday’s poll and the campaigns which led up to it, and the election it was separated from by four decades and a tumultuous history. Yet I still found it difficult to see the contending parties confronting the central issues of our society – poverty, inequality, unemployment and job creation, corruption and rapacious accumulation, a disparity in wealth and living conditions that shocks.

I again doubted the capacity of the contending parties and their leaders to move beyond narrow or sectional interests, where they seek their votes and deliver their patronage. I was reminded of the petty posturing and point scoring so evident in local councils, provincial legislatures and the national parliament which rarely prioritise the interests of ordinary South Africans, regardless of what these public representatives claim in their speeches and statements.  

In some ways, this was the difficulty we faced, as radical student leaders, in 1974. How could we advise our constituency on the Nusas-affiliated campuses to vote, or even whether to vote? It was highly unlikely that any major impetus for progressive change would emerge as a result of the electoral system and the political parties which contested those elections. The Progressive Party presented a limited form of opposition to National Party rule – certainly far more than the official opposition United Party. Yet its support of free market economics, monopoly capitalism and a qualified franchise made it extremely difficult for any of the ‘new radicals’ to vote for it, even on a strategic basis.

We were both right and wrong. The dynamics of change in the 1970s and 1980s were the consequence of a wide range of intersecting, mutually reinforcing and sometimes contradictory influences and causes. Electoral politics was one very minor element in that complex mix.

That may be one of the lessons of Wednesday’s elections. The major drivers of progress are unlikely to come from within the system of political party representation and contestation, at least in the short to medium term. Rather, we are going to have to look to other initiatives, including the activities of civil society and community organisations challenging the way resources are allocated, services delivered and priorities established.

The political parties, at best, may be influenced by these pressures and developments. Strategic electoral politics – especially in the next local authority elections scheduled for  2016 – may attempt to identify parties which are more likely to respond to pressure and demands from civil society, communities and elsewhere in society. But the political parties in their current forms are unlikely to initiate or lead the processes of progressive change.