Political Parties, Social Movements and Race Relations in Post-Apartheid South Africa
This paper discusses the role played by South African political parties and other popularly based movements and organizations in the construction and sustaining of racial identities.
At least since 1994, and in certain cases for decades before, South African political organizations and social movements have attempted to define their programmes, beliefs and goals in ways that are ‘non-racial’. Such efforts have been complicated by differences in the conception of non-racialism and difficulties involved in conceiving social reality in a race-blind fashion in a social context where institutions, culture and social inequalities are structured by racial distinctions.
The first South African political party to adopt a professedly non-racial rhetoric was the South African Liberal Party in 1959, though earlier, South African communists attempted to organize and mobilize around class interests. During the 1950s, the African National Congress (ANC) used the terminology of ‘multi-racialism’ in defining its goals and constructing alliances with other groups, and it refused membership to ‘non-Africans’.
‘Multiracialism’ and ‘non-racialism’ have been understood in different ways by various organizations since then. Generally speaking, liberation movements and their supporters have opposed racial inequalities but have adopted inconsistent positions on the meaning of race itself. As elsewhere, nationalist celebration of cultural identity and communal history can come very close to endorsing notions of racial difference and promoting racial consciousness. ‘Non-racial’ rhetoric (and class analysis) became especially prevalent during the 1980s, when it was used by the United Democratic Front (in explicit opposition to the Black Consciousness movement) and when trade unions supplied the most powerful organizational base for liberation politics.
Following a historical introduction, the paper examines the relevance of race-based identities in the ways in which modern political parties attempt to build their followings. Though, theoretically, South Africa’s proportional representation electoral system supplies strong incentives for rival parties to convert support from each other’s followings, several commentators have suggested that elections are merely racial censuses: that is, voters understand and define their interests in racial terms and support the party which appears to embody ‘their’ community.
While we will review the debate about voter motivation, our prime concern here is with political leadership and organization: how valid is the accusation that South African parties exploit racial sentiment in their electioneering, either directly, or more implicitly in coded terms? How seriously have parties attempted to develop racially diverse followings, and how carefully have they tried to avoid tactics and language that might accentuate racial tension? Turning from elections, we also consider the internal dynamics of party organization, investigating recruitment, leadership structures and policy formation to illuminate the extent to which these are influenced by racial conceptions. We focus on the ANC in this respect, and the ways it has attempted to achieve ‘socially representative’ leadership and policies that might attract support across racial divisions. The development of affirmative action and black empowerment strategies, and the way these have shaped discourses about race within the ANC, merit extensive discussion. Is there any validity to the accusations that the ANC in government has begun, consciously or otherwise, to promote a racially defined African nationalist solidarity in order to hold together a constituency increasingly divided by social inequalities, which are the effect of an expanding black middle class?
Have the main opposition parties, since 1994, focused their main concerns around the defense of what were once institutionalized racial privileges? Outside the ambit of party politics, do other kinds of organizational or associational life promote social identities that cut across racial boundaries? What is the contribution of poor people’s movements, such as the civic organizations that emerged in black townships in the 1980s and helped define liberation politics around issues of broad social justice rather than notions of competing nationalism? How successful have trade unions been in preserving a non-racial philosophy, and how successful have they been in extending organization and a recognition of common interests across a racially diverse movement? To what extent has the desegregation of schooling, and, more significantly in this context, higher education helped to promote the construction of non-racial student movements? What scope is there in South Africa for the consolidation of ‘new’ social movements around issues and identities that were overshadowed by the racial and economic inequalities of the apartheid era: environmentalism, feminism and revivalist protestant evangelism?
In conclusion, this paper attempts to assess the salience of racial identity and the quality of race relations in modern South African politics. Is racial identity becoming more central to elite political discourses—as is sometimes claimed both by the government and its critics? If this is the case, does this reflect popular sentiment? Opinion polls suggest that, increasingly, at least in the case of black South Africans, people are defining their sense of belonging to a community in terms other than race. How does this reflect on their political loyalties, associational life and collective action?