DA raises its profile in black townships

Alex | Sep 29, 2009
While the ANC has constituted itself as a mass party, the DA has shown that it has pockets of township support.

Summary - Money is tight in these elections. Foreign donors are no longer bankrolling contestants, and the parties have to find cost-effective ways of reaching voters. Thus parties with well-organised national memberships have an advantage. Most people vote for the party they believe cares about them, and the best way for a party to show that it cares is to establish a presence in their neighbourhoods. The ANC invested much effort recently in revitalising its branches, and in January 2002 it launched a “Year of the Volunteer” to capture the spirit of letsame ilima, with a theme for each month ranging from local security to pension payouts. This initiative contributed to a quadrupling of the party’s membership. Field-workers for a Wits University research project aimed at assessing political party grass-roots activism found that an impressive 74 per cent of ANC members interviewed had participated in the letsame campaign. Their data revealed a fairly egalitarian movement, with involvement by unemployed people and by women. However, they found that participation was at times more dutiful than enthusiastic, and was often motivated by personal concerns rather than altruism. Nevertheless, the ANC’s move to become a “mass party” has been fairly successful. The only other party making a determined effort to develop a national branch structure is the DA. The party has won about 10 per cent of the African vote in municipal by-elections, and today 80 per cent of its youth wing is black, though its national leadership is still overwhelmingly white. Its recent emphasis on poor people’s issues shows a significant shift from its previous tendency to court disaffected whites and coloureds. The DA has established numerous branches in ‘emergent areas’ in Gauteng, and the Wits project has interviewed 30 DA branch members in Soweto. The findings are still tentative, but it seems that DA members are strikingly young (23 were under the age of 30), as well as well-educated (28 had matric and 18 had or were undergoing higher education). No one had belonged to the DA longer than four years. Reassuringly, 24 said their affiliation did not have to be kept secret. Asked why they had joined the DA, several said it was the only party that offered strong opposition; others referred to its exposure of corruption and its efforts to help the poor. Their responses suggested a well-informed and discerning partisanship. This may indicate the beginning of a gradual transition to a two-party system. If these findings are confirmed by further research, the DA will have to be taken seriously as a future force.

This time around, in the upcoming elections, foreign donors won't be bankrolling the main contestants. The days are over when a South African president could calmly request a few million dollars as a gift for the African National Congress (ANC) during the course of a state visit. Local companies will continue to pay up but not on a scale to compensate for the dwindling flow of funds from abroad. Political parties will seek the most cost effective ways of reaching the voters. Those parties with well-organised national memberships will be at an advantage.

In theory, of course, South African voters have as many choices as the number of party symbols that appear on the ballot papers. In reality, most voters, if they choose at all (many voters have fixed loyalties), will consider only those contenders whom they feel care about them. For political parties, the best way of demonstrating that they care about the people whose votes they seek is by establishing a presence in their neighbourhoods. In contrast to wealthy industrial democracies, in South Africa, face-to-face electioneering remains important, both for confirming active support among the ranks of the faithful and in soliciting favour from the uncertain and the doubtful.

Since the local elections, the ANC has invested much effort in revitalising its branches. Boundaries of branches were adjusted after 2000 to coincide with the new municipal wards, in general making them larger. New executives were elected and membership lists checked and revised to establish areas of strength and weakness. In January 2002, the party launched a "Year of the Volunteer" to "capture the community spirit of letsame ilima". Each month would be accorded a separate theme. In January, for example, ANC branches would concentrate on repairing schools and activists from the Congress of South African Students would attempt to retrieve missing books and classroom equipment, as well as distributing admission forms. Subsequent monthly activities would direct themselves at "clean-ups", neighbourhood security, improving pension payout procedures and so forth. Membership statistics published at the national conference held in Stellenbosch in December 2002 suggested that the organization had revived flagging membership: up to over 400 000, four times more than paid up membership two years before.

At Wits University, a research project based in the department of political studies is exploring the quality of political party grass roots activism. The project focussed first on the ANC. Student fieldworkers interviewed 321 ANC members from 50 branches, mostly in Gauteng, though a few in Limpopo and Kwa-Zulu Natal as well. The conversations between the students and their subjects followed the format of a standard questionnaire, but several of the questions were open ended so that respondents could supply detail in their answer and volunteer their own opinions. Nearly half the respondents were women. Seventy-five had been educated beyond school and 91 had passed matriculation. 124 held executive positions in their branches. Despite these biases towards office-holding and education this was scarcely a privileged group. 135 respondents told their interviewers they were unemployed and the others were mainly in unskilled occupations, though there was significant group of teachers, conspicuous among office holders. Though this was not a carefully constructed representative sample, it probably reflects a reasonable cross section of the ANC's general following, at least in the cities.

It was impressive how many of these people had participated in the letsame campaign, 74 per cent, many more than once. In Alexandra, for example, in an especially animated ANC group, respondents cited tree planting, school cleaning, visits to old age homes and prisons, the distribution of information about HIV/Aids, street sweeping, working at a community crèche and painting a police station. Participation rates in the ten Limpopo branches were especially high. In only one branch, in Ekurhuleni (East Rand) did members agree that there had been no calls to undertake voluntary work: here the branch meetings were very poorly attended. In addition to the letsame activities, other indications of branch activity included references to fund-raising, in most cases to support the expenses of delegates travelling to provincial and national conferences. A majority of Limpopo respondents could cite such enterprises, mentioning door-to-door collections, solicitation of local traders, as well as raffles, beauty contests and sports days.

Most branches held regular monthly meetings. Typically, respondents cited paid-up memberships of between 100 and 250 and most suggested that attendance at the most recent meeting exceeded 50. Cross tabulating the sociological data from the survey with the indicators of involvement in branch activity suggests a fairly egalitarian movement. Unemployed people were almost as likely to hold positions on branch executives as those with jobs, and 32 per cent of women held office compared to 41 per cent of men. Office-holders tended to be better educated, though. More than half the people interviewed read ANC publications regularly, two-thirds had participated in nominations for the National Executive elections and about half could remember a municipal councillor report back meeting they had attended within the last three months.

The open ended questions elicited comments that offer significant qualifications to this picture of a locally animated and democratic movement. Sometimes, letsame participation may have been more dutiful than enthusiastic. A woman in Pietermaritzburg observed that "most people do not like to volunteer, they want to be paid". Several remarks recorded by fieldworkers suggest that ANC members are often motivated in their political activism by instrumental personal concerns rather than social commitment. The ANC was "failing to get us jobs", a member in Tsakane noted. Conversely a KwaThema activist, in a commentary on local nepotism, maintained that "the ANC seems to be a local employment agency". In this branch officials complained about not being paid and suggested that for this purpose each branch should retain a proportion of the subscriptions it collected. Members should be "empowered" with vocational skills and "the ANC needs to ensure that all comrades that were in exile are taken care of". Another member told his interviewer that he had lost interest in the ANC "when hawkers were removed from the street".

"I cannot continue to work for an organization that does look after its members," complained an office-holder in Tsakane. In at least two branches, respondents suggested that one needed an ANC card to qualify for an RDP house. Finally several respondents felt that the ANC was too egalitarian in ethos. For example, in KwaThema, "our branch is run by illiterate people… both unemployed and uneducated".

"Educated people were sidelined at branch level," opined a member of another Tsakane branch. However several people in this branch complained, conversely, that proceedings at meetings were difficult to follow because they were held in English.

This sort of grumbling suggests that the idealistic picture of grass roots commitment presented by the ANC Youth League slogan - "every member an organizer, a commissar" - may be too optimistic: self interest probably balances altruistic social dedication within the ANC's mass following. Even so, the ANC has clearly constituted itself with some success as a "mass party", that is a party that seeks, through its popular recruitment, to achieve quite deep-rooted social integration. As long as it has no serious rivals in this domain and to the extent that its organisation does not atrophy, its domination of electoral politics will continue. Moreover, well-structured mass parties are fairly immune from fission: in other words, defections by party notables prompted by, for example, policy disagreements do not promote splits.

At present only one other electoral party is making a serious effort to develop a nationally extensive branch structure across South Africa's traditional social divisions. In the 2000 municipal poll, the Democratic Alliance (DA) demonstrated that it could draw electoral support from pockets of black voters in townships as well as doing well in its customary bases in white and Indian neighbourhoods. It performed comparatively well, for example, in certain townships in the Free State, collecting ten per cent of the local vote here and there. Its share of the vote in black communities around Johannesburg and Pretoria was comparable, exceeding the support received by the ANC's historical adversaries in townships, including, by definition, the Pan Africanist Congress. In municipal by-elections, admittedly on the basis of low polls, it has collected routinely about ten per cent of the African vote. The DA claims today to be substantially a black party: four-fifths of its youth wing is black, its spokesmen maintain, though the party's national leadership remains overwhelmingly white. Fresh emphases in its policies on poor peoples' issues - on tax incentives for hawkers and its advocacy of a basic income grant - indicate a significant shift from its 1999 predisposition to mainly court disaffected whites and coloureds. In Gauteng, in Johannesburg and in the Vaal region, the DA has established 32 branches in what it calls "emergent areas". It has organised another twenty branches in Pretoria. An angry exchange in newspaper letter columns earlier this year in which both DA and ANC local leaders accused each other of forcibly disrupting their respective party's activities in Alexandra helped to confirm this fairly assertive movement by the DA into fresh territory.

The Wits project has begun to interview DA branch members. So far field-workers have confined themselves to Soweto and the data collected from 30 interviews only allow for the most tentative findings. Twenty of the respondents were in their 20s and three others were 19: this seems to be a strikingly young movement, though the snowball method of contacting respondents and the youth of the interviews may have influenced the selection. DA officials, though, do suggest that much of their black recruitment is among young people and most of the respondents agreed that the busiest activists in their branch were young people. Eighteen of the respondents had or were undergoing higher education, and all but two of the others had matriculated. The respondents included eleven women. Six were unemployed, twelve were students, and most of the remainder had middle class or white collar occupations. These proportions, albeit not in a representative sample, do suggest that the DA may have a rather different social constituency to the ANC though it may reflect the location of the interviews in Pimville and White City. Reinforcing the impression of the social status of this group of respondents is the high proportion who claimed that they obtained most of their information about politics from newspapers. The 2000 elections showed that the DA was quite capable of building its following in a diversity of settings, elite suburbs as well as informal settlements. Twenty-five of the respondents have belonged to the DA for two years or less, and no one claimed membership for longer than four years. Fourteen had no previous political experience, six had belonged to the UDM, and smaller numbers to other groups. Only two had left the ANC to join the DA.

All indicated that the branch to which they belonged had about 35 members, of whom around twenty generally attended meetings. Most mentioned weekly meetings. Five respondents admitted that they themselves seldom attended meetings and hence could offer no information about branch activities. The agreed that the most important current campaigning was directed at helping people obtain identification books and urging citizens to register on the voters roll. About half the respondents also mentioned HIV/Aids public education and an "anti-crime drive". An impressive two thirds of the group had voted in the 2000 municipal elections. A reassuring 24 out of 30 could tell the field-workers that their political affiliations did not have to be kept secret; people in their neighbourhood knew they belonged to the DA.

Finally, respondents were asked why they joined the DA. Several referred to its record as "the only party" that offered "strong opposition". DA leadership claims that its abrasive parliamentary style is well received by black membership of the party and these responses appear to support this contention. Four respondents referred specifically to the DA's efforts to expose corruption in government. Two felt that the DA favoured "meritocracy". Several liked the party's "non-racialism". Three cited its efforts to advocate the needs of "the poorest of the poor". Most of these responses indicated a general awareness of specific features of the DA's programme, suggesting a rather well informed and discerning partisanship.

Most of the DA adherents encountered by the Wits field-workers were either politically inactive at the time of the last election or supported other parties. Their testimony may well express a new trend in South African politics: the first symptoms of a gradual transition to a two-party system. If these tentative findings are confirmed by further research then political pundits will have to start taking the DA seriously as a future force in popular politics. In 2004, though, notwithstanding the DA's advances into fresh territory, the ANC's victory will reflect its formidable organizational foundations.