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16 June 1999

Low expectations in South Africa

by Barrie Collins

Against the predictions, 89 percent of the South African electorate returned to the polls for the country's second-ever democratic elections at the beginning of June. The result, an overwhelming victory for the African National Congress (ANC), surprised nobody. The congress won 66.35 percent of the vote - another 0.32 percent and they would have achieved the two-thirds majority that their opponents had scaremongered about. With a two-thirds majority, a party can change the constitution.

Yet these figures were issued by the same electoral commission that first declared the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) to be the new official opposition, before discovering a 'computer error' that had resulted in both the IFP and the ANC being credited with too many votes. The silver medal was then hastily transferred to Tony Leon's Democratic Party. (But by then, outgoing President Nelson Mandela had already been on the phone to congratulate IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi.) During the last elections there were allegations that the electoral commission had fixed Inkatha's victory in KwaZulu-Natal in advance of polling.

The most striking feature of these elections was the difference in popular expectations from the previous democratic elections. There was none of the euphoria that surrounded the first post-apartheid elections in 1994. By all accounts, the ANC's record in office is dismal. A million new low-cost houses had been promised by now - a fraction of this number has been delivered. Unemployment remains anywhere between 30 and 40 percent, depending on whose figures are used. This time the masses voted in hope, not expectation, of tangible progress. A combination of respect for Mandela, a residual perception of the ANC as the party of liberation, and the absence of any other credible contenders accounted for the increased ANC majority.

For the ANC leadership, the two-thirds majority was a non-issue. There was never any question of using its mass base to change the constitution more to its liking, or even to enforce genuine majority rule. Having attained a solid relationship with the business community, there was no question of a change in priorities - big business interests first, those of the black majority second. Predictably, incoming President Thabo Mbeki declared that 'the centre has held in favour of democracy'. Yet the centre was not in contest. The choice was not between right and left, all parties had affirmed their commitment to free market principles. Those considered to be on the left, the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions, demonstrated once again their extraordinary capacity to drum up the ANC vote while refusing to rock the boat or respond to increasingly strident attacks from the ANC leadership. Those who did stand as a 'left' opposition, together with the racist 'right', took just over two percent of the vote.

The Democratic Party's (DP) gain was almost directly proportional to the

New National Party's (NNP) loss (the NNP was formerly the National Party of the apartheid era, and then the ANC's partner in the 'government of national unity'). Unable to drop its apartheid baggage, and stuck with some of the mud flung at it in the course of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which held public hearings into atrocities committed during apartheid, the NNP lost 54 seats. The DP gained 31. An overwhelmingly white party, the DP was seen to be a more politically correct vehicle for white reaction. It's 'Fight back!' slogan had more of a resonance among those fearful of the black majority than the NNP's 'Hang murderers and rapists!'.

A universal concern over the country's high crime rate dominated the elections. The ANC has promised to take tougher action. In the hope that things will get better, an emasculated majority has legitimised a state that is proposing authoritarian measures which even its apartheid predecessor might have envied.

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