For Africa, a lesson about identity politics

Voters in South Africa gave the ruling African National Congress a sharp rebuke for presuming it can be reelected as the natural leader of the black majority. The ANC must return to Nelson Mandela’s goal of a nonracial society with equal opportunities.

AP Photo
Mmusi Maimane, leader of thel opposition Democratic Alliance, talks to the press in Pretoria, South Africa, Aug. 5. With 95 percent of votes counted, the ruling ANC appears to have suffered its biggest electoral blow since it won power at the end of the apartheid era 22 years ago.

On a continent where too many leaders stay in power long past their sell-by-date, Africa needs as many models of democracy as it can get. Last year, Nigeria saw its first democratic power transfer. In July, Tunisia’s parliament peacefully voted out a prime minister. Each stands out but in both cases broad issues such as corruption or lack of reforms were more important than race, religion, or tribe.

Now South Africa, already a showcase democracy, has shown it may also be rising above the dangers of such identity politics.

In an Aug. 3 election for municipal councils, South African voters gave a sharp blow to the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and its 22-year presumption that it is the natural leader of the country’s black majority for leading the struggle against white rule. In the ballot count, both the nonracial Democratic Alliance (DA) and radical leftist Economic Freedom Fighters saw dramatic gains in large urban areas that are the country’s economic engines.

The ANC’s overall share of votes was still a majority 54 percent. But that is down from 62 percent in the 2011 municipal elections. One reason for the fall is the corruption that dogs President Jacob Zuma. But in losing key cities, the ANC also showed it is losing ground for its inability to provide jobs and basic services, and to meet other social goals.

The economy is expanding more slowly than the population is growing. A quarter of South Africans live in extreme poverty. Pre-vote surveys show that more than half of South Africans say race relations have improved while nearly a third believe the country is heading in the wrong direction.

Those who practice identity politics hope that voters will look more at who is promising them opportunities than whether they get opportunities. They also rely on a perceived “other” in order to rally support. The ANC has lost the vision of Nelson Mandela, who set the country on a path to becoming a nonracial (and nonsexist) society, one that offers equality of opportunities, not equality of results. More than half of South Africa’s 54 million citizens told one pollster that the ANC has lost its “moral compass.”

South Africa has a goal of achieving an inclusive, united society by 2030. The ANC should again embrace that goal and help the country become an even better model of democracy for Africa.

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