Politics of the Cape Flats
Politics of the Cape Flats

Now if ever there was a mess, this is it!

The Western Cape has the somewhat stigmatised status as being the only one of South Africa's nine provinces in which the National Party (NP) was able to achieve a majority; both in the general election of 1994, and the local elections of 1996. For those who do not know- the NP was the ruling party from 1948 until it lost to the African National Congress in the historic election of 1994. In a nutshell, it was the NP that was largely responsible for the creation and maintenance of the apartheid system.

The electoral victory of the NP in the Western Cape has been, and continues to be a subject of intense analysis and debate. It would appear as if most of the people who participate in this debate, ascribe this victory to the preferences displayed by the "coloured" voters on the Cape Flats. In other words, the NP was able to win because

  1. the majority of people on the Cape Flats are "coloured" and
  2. most of the "coloureds" who voted, voted for the NP
The dispute in the debate is thus not whether most "coloured" voters supported the NP, but rather WHY most "coloureds" support the NP.

The debate is a rather complex one, but seems to focus on the fears of "coloured" people that they would be marginalised if the African National Congress (ANC) comes to power- something which was certainly re-inforced during the election campaigns of the NP. Even senior ANC officials agree that, perhaps the ANC should have done more to allay the fears of "coloured" people. Yet, we still hear statements- "how can people vote for the NP, the party which oppressed them for so many years...". This is even asked by "coloured" political activists.

I am by no means an expert on this issue. At best, I'm a distant participant in the debate, trying to make sense of the arguments being advanced by others. Yet, I think that there are some important historical factors to be taken into account:

  • "coloured" people on the Cape Flats have always been more privileged than their "African" counterparts. Perhaps the clearest example of this was the Coloured Labour Preference Act, which meant that "coloureds" had a distinct advantage over Africans in finding employment. The fact that these privileges were accorded and protected by the NP has an important influence on people's perceptions.

  • most NP-aligned politicians are known (via exposure in the mass media) to "coloured" voters on the Cape Flats. In contrast, other than the President, most "coloured" people would not be able to tell you who the ANC's leading figures are.

  • while the ANC has always had a presence, it was only during the 1980's that a relatively strong "congress" tradition began to emerge on the Cape Flats. Support for congress politics was effectively mobilised during the campaigns of the United Democratic Front (UDF) and it appears as if the disbanding of the UDF was instrumental in the declining support for the ANC.

  • there is also a question of style- most "coloured" people can identify with the robust, off-the-cuff style displayed by NP politicians, which tends to mirror very closely, the way in which the people of the Cape Flats behave. In contrast, the more serious and analytical approach of ANC politicians tends to not find favour amongst "coloureds".

Without wanting to be simplistic, I think a strong argument can be made in favour of "rather the devil we know...". In other words, "coloureds" know and understand the NP. The same cannot be said with regard to the ANC.

A disturbing phenomenon is the increasing animosity between coloured and African communities, no doubt perpetuated by a perception that coloureds have betrayed Africans. However, this animosity is not new. With the abolishment of the Influx Control laws in 1985, there has been a steady increase in the number of people arriving from the Transkei and Ciskei in search of opportunities. With resources and opportunities as limited as they are, it is not surprising that this situation has given rise to tensions, which unfortunately are often expressed in racial terms.

A relatively new development, and one which poses a serious challenge to particularly the ANC, is the emerging notion of an "ethnic, coloured identity". Again, it is not entirely clear what the issue is here, but the debate seems to take two forms:

The somewhat extremist articulation of this debate, is that coloureds should be regarded as a separate ethnic group and that, therefore, provision should be made for the coloureds to exercise their rights as an ethnic group. I suppose that this can in some ways be compared to the demand for an Afrikaner volkstaat- protection of culture, language etc.

The second approach, which interestingly enough, is espoused by political activists who regard themselves as loyal members of the ANC, is one which calls for the recognition of an experience which can best be described as that of coloureds in South Africa, and particularly, in Cape Town. This is not a demand for a separate identity, but rather an appeal for the acknowledgement that coloured communities are, in fact, different and that, therefore, mechanisms need to be put in place whereby the fears, desires and hopes of the coloured community can be addressed.

The political landscape of the Western Cape is undoubtedly complex. The above merely scratches the surface and I'm not shy to admit that I do not fully understand the complexities. It is also likely that it will become even more complex as our political transition continues to unfold. However, this is no reason to get depressed. It should rather be understood as a challenge to create a political dispensation in the Western Cape which brings out the best in people, however difficult this may be.