Thursday, April 15, 2004

Ciao Baby!
There is still some time to go before the counting finishes, but one of the big story's coming out of the election is the dramatic decline in support for the New National Party. Although they were always facing an uphill struggle to retain the 6 percent they won in 1999 I don't think that anybody predicted that they would do quite as badly as they have. With less than 2 percent of the vote (a number that is likely to fall as late rural votes are counted), I think its fair to say that the election, and indeed their entire strategy of the last three years, is an unmitigated disaster for the NNP. In only two provinces have they polled support above 1 percent and even in their Western Cape heartland they look unlikely to break into double figures.

I think the lesson to be drawn from this spectacular implosion is that the electorate will not abide the sort of arrogance and political opportunism demonstrated by the NNP over the past few years. This is a party which in 1994 won 20 percent of the vote by whipping up fear of a black government and arguing that South Africa needed a strong counter to the ANC. This was a strategy that required enacting one of the most cynical and spectacular volte faces of recent SA political history, that of trying to convince coloured voters in the Western Cape that they were suddenly white and thus ought to fear the ANC. When it became apparent, after 1999, that this was not enough to allow it to hold onto the Western Cape by itself it entered a coalition with the DA (who are genuinely committed to building a strong opposition). When that too appeared to be insufficient to hang onto power it joined with the ANC. All the while, Marthinus 'Kortbroek' van Schalkwyk's shit-eating grin smiled out at us whilst mouthing platitudes about the need to oppose the trend to one partyism and then, when it became expedient to do so, about the need to work with the ANC and to acknowledge the impossibility of 'confrontational politics' in South Africa.

I've said it before, but the NNP do not understand democracy. What they do understand is power and what their recent history shows is that they will do anything to hang onto it in whatever form it is available. Even now, they're demonstrating an inabilty to understand the differing roles of parties and electorates in a democracy. Here's what NNP spokeswoman Juli Kilian had to say about the NNP's poor showing according to the SA Sunday Times:

'Kilian blamed a short sighted electorate who were attracted to "parties that played the opposition game," for their poor performance.'

Yup, Ms Kilian, it's the 'short sighted' electorate's fault, not the NNP's.

The NNP argue that they at least have attempted to break the mould of racially based voting (an implicit criticism of the DA) but this is disengenuous of them, to say the least. Unless the NNP suffered a collective damascene conversion 3 years ago, it is hard to sustain the argument that they are trying to overcome racial polarisation. Rather the NNP's shifting alliance strategy shows that they are driven, overwhelmingly, by a desire to cling on to power in the Western Cape. The other point of course is that it is just fatuous to argue that the only form of politics that is viable in South Africa is the non-confrontational sort. And just what form does a non-confrontational democracy take anyway? Are we to take it that the electorate is too simplistic to understand the importance of opposition and the opportunities for debate which it allows for? Are we to believe that the electorate will really distinguish between parties that work with the ANC and the ANC itself? Because if they don't (and the NNPs fate seems to suggest they don't) then we're on the road to one-partyism.

The NNP's claim to be trying to de-racialise SA politics miss another point though. Non-racial politics does not mean having to form alliances with the ANC (despite the ANCs suggestion that it does). As the DA's alliance with the IFP and the small success of the Independent Democrats shows, it is possible to be non-racial and still be for a strong opposition. Furthermore, if the DA's support holds at around the 14 percent mark then it will no longer be possible to argue that it is simply the party of whites. At that level of support, it has to be drawing in support from other groups and thus could, with some credibilty, claim to be as multi-racial if not more so than the ANC itself. On this point, it will be interesting to see what the DA's suport from rural SA and the townships is like. I'm willing to bet that it has gone up since 1999, especially in township areas.

Having said all this, the NNP will limp on for a bit longer. The ANC is not going to win the Western Cape without it and so I expect Kortbroek will strike some sort of bargain whereby he parlays his support for the ANC into a cabinet position for himself and one or two cronies. No doubt he will hail this deal as evidence for the NNP's efforts to break the mould of SA politics. He'll be talking out of his rear end of course and no amount of positive spin doctoring will hide the fact that after 70 odd years of these people, SA is finally in the process of saying goodbye to the National Party.


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