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The South African flag goes up on a building in Long Street, Cape Town, in this file photo.
The South African flag goes up on a building in Long Street, Cape Town, in this file photo.

Is there a political figure in SA sufficiently talented to create something new? That seems to me to be one of the most urgent questions to ask right now.

Nearly four in five white people who voted did so for the DA or the FF+. Almost nine in 10 black voters chose the ANC, IFP or offshoots from the liberation movement.

On the 30th anniversary of democracy voting in SA remains both racially polarised to an astonishing degree and steeped in the past, for each of these parties and their offshoots trace their respective pedigrees into the depths of the 20th century. 

These voting patterns augur a fragile start to a new era of coalition politics, especially when one considers matters from the vantage point of what parties are saying about SA’s constitution.

White SA gave the 1994 settlement and the constitution that sealed it a ringing endorsement. Black SA, by contrast, divided over whether the constitution was an adequate basis for the future. For the dispute between the ANC and its two offshoots, MK and the EFF, is precisely over this fundamental question. 

White SA hunkering down with the constitution as black SA debates it: this seems a precarious foundation for a new era of politics. The ANC is about to govern in an arrangement with the DA, among others. It is doing so with enormous ambivalence.

There is a feeling abroad in the organisation that it is being blackmailed into allying with the DA by a global financial order that will punish it for choosing any alternative arrangement. Its president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has three years left in office and no plan for succession. The battle to replace him is likely to double as a referendum within the party over whether it should be in bed with the DA after all. 

The constellation of ideas that are clinging together — white people-DA-the constitution-the global financial order — is not a happy one. If SA is to be governed stably from the centre in the era that is dawning, old patterns will have to be broken. That is why I ask whether there a political figure in SA sufficiently talented to create a set of political allegiances that are genuinely new. 

The election results suggest that it is awfully hard. There was no shortage of well-financed start-up parties. Mmusi Maimane’s Build One SA, Songezo Zibi’s Rise Mzansi and Herman Mashaba’s ActionSA all underperformed spectacularly. Sixty-one percent of eligible voters chose not to go to the polls. Among black people the percentage was higher. They were clearly nonplussed by the former liberation movement and its offshoots, but the Zibi and Maimane redescription of their country did not entice them either. 

It seems SA will be stuck for a long time to come with the old parties and their offshoots. If a genuinely creative force is to emerge, it will have to come from one of them. Who among them is the most likely candidate? Not the ANC. Its soul is so torn by what it is about to do; it will fight with itself bitterly over the next five years; it is a more likely source of instability than of creativity. 

What about the DA? In theory, it has the greatest room for creativity. For if it is true, as pundits are fond of repeating, that South Africans are preternaturally small “c” conservatives, support for the DA ought to grow. After all, it is the only mainstream party that is comfortable in itself when inhabiting the centre ground. 

But just 4% of black people voted for the DA, and under its current leader, John Steenhuisen, its black support base is not going to grow. Nor does the party have the motivation to take the risk of redescribing itself and its country, for its place as the second largest party is comfortable. 

SA has entered a new era of coalition politics, but voter alignment is not going anywhere new. The past sits heavily on everyone. This is not a strong foundation for what is to come.

It will be a rocky ride. Whoever thought it would be anything else? 

• Steinberg teaches at Yale University’s Council on African Studies.

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