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Southern Africa Report Archive

Is South Africa the exception that proves the rule in the region? The answer must be "yes and no," as our coverage of South Africa's recent local elections helps document. As Hein Marais suggests, it has been a pretty good year for the ANC politically. And yet, as he further testifies, finding the economic key to unlocking progress for large numbers of South Africans remains an elusive goal for the ANC, one full of especially dangerous portent for the future.

vol 11 no 2

South Africa: The local elections: I - the big picture
Hein Marais

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 11, No 2, January 1996
Page 18
"South Africa"



South African journalist Hein Marais is a senior producer in SABC current affairs radio. An earlier version of this article was written for le Monde Diplomatique.

A month ago, Patrick Xegwana was a dishwasher at a students' residence on the campus of the elite Stellenbosch University. Now he's a councillor on the municipal council in a university town which spawned six apartheid prime ministers and where, for decades, academics laboured less at promoting enlightenment than at designing and finetuning the apartheid system. Xegwana's triumph was one of many surprises registered by the ANC in the country's first-ever democratic local government elections in early November. The ANC swept the boards, winning 66 per cent of the popular vote. The nearest rival, the National Party of F.W. de Klerk, trailed with 15 per cent of the vote. The Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) polled only 0.6 per cent of votes, confirming its failure to become a national party (Violence-wracked KwaZulu Natal, where IFP support is strong, did not vote; its residents will only go the polls next year).

In provinces like the Free State, the ANC will run virtually every town council, most of which will have only ANC councillors sitting on the benches. In the Western Cape (where the ANC was thrashed by the NP in last year's general election) the ANC now runs most of the major towns and many smaller rural communities. The reason? An unexpected breakthrough among coloured voters, many of whom abandoned the NP and voted ANC, which has claimed "a 35 per cent swing" from the NP. (CapeTown, however, did not vote; a dispute over ward boundaries forced postponement of local government elections there until next year).

The ANC has greeted these results as a resounding mandate. Certainly, the tallies have confounded predictions that the slow and uneven pace of socio-economic transformation achieved by the ANC-led government of national unity would see protest votes siphoned off to more populist-minded candidates and parties. This didn't happen. The party of renegade former ANC politician Rocky Malebatse-Metsing, a rousing populist, for instance netted fewer votes in the mostly rural North West province than did the party of former Bophutatswana homeland dictator Lucas Mangope! And the Pan-Africanist Congress, long touted as a potential haven for disgruntled ANC supporters, collected only one per cent of the vote - less than the elitist urban-based Democratic Party.

It's been a good year for the ANC in power. The "miracle" of April 27, 1994, has lost some of its sheen and vibrancy, but the ANC has succeeded in holding a fractious society together. It has checked the secessionist aspirations of the IFP in KwaZulu Natal (though the battle is far from won). It also weathered the challenge from the white Right which is now in terminal decline: Conservative Party leader Ferdi Hartzenberg reflected on the party's 1.65 per cent of votes by admitting that "it is a blow for the party and it is a blow for self-determination." With 5.1 per cent of votes, the slightly more moderate Freedom Front looks stronger than it is: it suffered defeat in every town it claims as part of a Afrikaner homeland, including Pretoria, the putative "capital" of a "volkstaat."

The news is less heartening, however, on the socio-economic front - with one exception. Goaded along by the organized workers' movement,the Labour Ministry nursed into being new labour legislation that ranks on a par with systems now under siege in many social-democracies of the North. But the macro-economic context in which the ANC hopes to improve the lives of the South African majority remains surprisingly conservative. Accepting what its regards as "global economic realities," and cheered on by capital, the ANC has opted for economic policies that differ from those inherited from the apartheid government only in their heightened emphasis on "liberalization." Exchange controls were loosened earlier in the year, prompting a modest rise in foreign investment which remains, however, diffident and speculative. Curbs on spending (through high interest rates) have pushed inflation below the 10 per cent mark - but they have not improved levels of savings nor encouraged significant productive investments by domestic capital which retains its penchant for short-term speculative investment, expressed extravagantly in the new office complexes and upmarket shopping centres that clutter elite, white suburbs. As a result, the economic growth rate labours beneath the 3 percent mark, severely narrowing the scope of the socio-economic changes the ANC has been promising.

Dormant - for now - are any signs of a development path that would creatively link initiatives geared at achieving both economic growth and redistribution of resources and opportunity in favour of the majority. Eighteen months ago, the vaunted Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) still pointed in that direction. Nowadays it conflicts only marginally and hesitantly with the imperatives of South African business which remains obdurate in its belief that boosted economic growth has to precede large-scale socio-economic transformation. The ANC's retreat on this front is perhaps not yet final. Elements within the Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the SA Communist Party (SACP) are fighting a rearguard battle to check the slide, but the ANC has drifted markedly towards becoming the administrator of a "trickle-down" development process. Nevertheless, the ANC's election success has spurred new hope that the RDP might finally get out of the starting blocks and effect tangible change in more black townships and rural communities.

To date the RDP has lumbered forward, with grand development projects often arrested in the planning phase. Among the many factors compounding the delays has been the absence of functioning local government in most of the country. Those projects that have made it to implementation stage often dissipated in a twilight zone of debilitated municipal councils. Now, argues the ANC, that changes. Duly elected town and rural councils are in place; development can proceed. But several factors caution against this kind of triumphalism. For even in a town where the ANC occupies every single seat on the new council, it will still not control that town.

There are several reasons for this paradox. First, the financial revenue at the disposal of these councils is derived mostly from white (and to a lesser extent, Asian) business people, property owners and farmers. These sectors - which voted mostly for the NP and the right-wing Freedom Front - hold an effective financial veto over the ANC-run town councils. If the ANC town councils opt to steamroll through new initiatives, they might trigger rates and other boycotts by the white residents. The central paradigm of the South African transition - inclusion and consultation - therefore persists; these councils will have to steer their transformative plans through arduous and sluggish negotiations where the balance of power is determined less by votes than by financial muscle, and by planning and management expertise.

Which brings us to the second inhibiting factor. Echoing the dynamics at the national level, the ANC has now attained political power at the local level, but the party lacks the capacity to extend that dominance into the crucial administrative and management zones. The ANC and its allies have a thin layer of technical experts at their disposal; most have been drawn into national and provincial government, many others have opted for lucrative careers in the private sector. Thus, the technical apparatuses in these towns will still be run by the old order, creating a kind of dual power situation that is likely to betray hopes of rapid development. (If this stymies or delays desperately needed development projects, one outcome might be revived - civil protest by black residents, albeit less organized and strategic than in the past.)

Thirdly, this lacuna at the local level strengthens the hand of provincial governments. Seven of the nine provinces are run by the ANC but this does not guarantee common purpose or shared priorities between provincial and municipal or rural politicians. South Africa's desolated periphery - its rural areas, where 40 per cent of the population survive precariously - has not become a priority for the ANC as a party, despite occasional rhetoric to the contrary. If current trends hold, ANC-led provincial governments are likely to focus resources on urban and peri-urban areas. The upshot is a transformation process that will continue to grind ahead laboriously and slowly. A more ominous challenge is also brewing in the rural outland, one that reveals a perilous hurdle to the transition. Pursuing an essentially modernist agenda of transformation, the ANC has long looked disparagingly on the country's traditional systems of authority - the intricate networks of chieftainship and traditional culture that still hold sway in many parts of South Africa. It's in these zones that Gatsha Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party has entrenched itself within the KwaZulu Natal province. There, the ANC has laboured in vain to expel the IFP from that support base.

Now a traditionalist challenge is mounting in the Eastern Cape. Days before the November elections, traditional leaders there threatened to boycott the vote. They contended that the newly elected town and rural councils would sideline the chiefs and their traditional structures. Instead they demanded a guarantee that their structures should administer communities in tandem with the new authorities. The ANC has balked at the proposal. These traditional structures are unelected, often corrupt and (being staunchly patriarchal and authoritarian) socially regressive, it says; democracy and progressive change must hold sway. Principled as the ANC's response might be, it lacks the pragmatic and conciliatory stances the party has adopted towards much more recidivist political players. As one Eastern Cape chief told an SABC reporter: "What we do not understand is why the ANC is happy to make deals and rule with the NP and the IFP, but it calls us reactionary and rejects us."

Until now the ANC has managed this contradiction between the modern and the traditional through a nominally allied organisation, the Congress of South African Traditional Leaders (Contralesa). The organisation was formed in 1987 with ANC blessings and support as part of a bid to undermine the Pretoria-sponsored homelands, and later to thwart the IFP's stranglehold on traditional leaders in KwaZulu Natal. But already there are signs that Contralesa is nobody's stooge. After Contralesa's president, Patikile Holomisa (also an ANC member), mooted a possible boycott of the elections, ANC secretary-general Cyril Ramaphosa urged the party to consider disciplinary action against him. Holimisa reacted by announcing his intention to resign from the party.

Holomisa is a not a high-profile party figure - the importance of his threat lies elsewhere. Few South African history books tell readers that Gatsha Buthelezi, today the scourge of the ANC, once also belonged to that party; nor do they inform one that Buthelezi formed Inkatha with the sanction of the ANC in 1975, only to be forced out of the ANC five years later in what was arguably a grave tactical error. By keeping Buthelezi within the party's fold, the ANC might well have contained the threat he later came to pose; the same applies in Holomisa's case.

It is too early to tell how this challenge from traditional leaders might play itself out. One option quietly mulled over by some Eastern Cape chiefs is to create a new political vehicle to better defend their interests, thereby casting issues of traditional authority and culture in a new political form. Radical populists like Winnie Mandela, who has pointedly maintained close relations with Contralesa and its Eastern Cape leadership, might also decide to exploit such a development. The outcome, though, depends on President Nelson Mandela. Until now Mandela - a prince of the Aba Thembu tribe in the Eastern Cape, the second largest tribe in the region after the Xhosa - has adroitly straddled the divide between the traditional and the modern, regularly consulting with traditional leaders in that province. The question now is which way he will tilt in this latest stand-off.

The nation-building project in South Africa remains personified by Mandela who gingerly persists at his balancing act of national reconciliation. "I started reconciliation in South Africa after a lot of humiliation," says Mandela, "I am the architect of reconciliation." He scuttles between meetings with the remnants of the old order (like his controversial tea appointment three months ago with Betsie Verwoerd, the widow of apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd) and his own expectant constituency, corralled into township slums. Except for the relatively slim layer of upwardly mobile blacks who are rapidly being conscripted as junior partners in the white-run economy, reconciliation remains a symbolic enterprise that is not yet reflected in social intercourse.

Perhaps the grandest attempt to cast reconciliation into an institutional form is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Modelled on the Chilean Truth Commission, this body has the task of investigating and documenting human rights abuses committed during the apartheid era. In return for indemnity from prosecution, perpetrators of such crimes will testify before the commission, which will start its work by early 1996. The theory is that the promise of indemnity will prompt comprehensive revelations of human rights crimes committed during the apartheid era, both by the security forces and to a much lesser extent by the liberation movement. And once the truth has been revealed, the nation can "begin healing itself." But the success of this commission now hangs in the balance.

Days before the local government elections, the KwaZulu Natal attorney-general, Tim McNally, made the surprise announcement that he would prosecute eighteen former top-ranking security officers, including the former Minister of Defence Magnus Malan. The accused have appeared in court, charged with complicity in the 1987 Kwamakutha massacre of civilians. Malan and his co-accused immediately cried foul, claiming that the move conflicts with the spirit of the Truth Commission. The accused had two options: apply for indemnity in exchange for their testimony before the Commission, or take their chances in the court case. The stakes they're playing for are high; surprisingly, they've chosen the latter route. Their defence will likely rest on a slew of technical objections and challenges in the Constitutional Court. And their case is bolstered by the fact that solid documentary evidence of their crimes is in short supply, despite the work of outfits like the Investigation Task Unit which built the case against these generals: in 1990, security officials incinerated tons of incriminating documentation.

Should Malan & Co. win their case, they will set a benchmark legal precedent, enabling apartheid criminals to hold their silence and shun the Truth Commission, knowing that once threatened with prosecution they too can take their chances in court . . . and perhaps win. If that happens, the Truth Commission becomes a shadow play and the grand bid for national reconciliation might run aground. Will Nelson Mandela's ensemble of symbolic gestures and exhortations then be sufficient to soothe the pain and bitterness that courses through South African society?

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