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How the Indian vote matters in South Africa

May 05, 2014 19:52 IST

South Africa is heading for polls on May 7. Shubha Singh examines how the Indian vote can make a difference in Durban

South Africa goes in for its fifth democratic election on May 7 with a result largely foretold -- President Jacob Zuma will remain the president of South Africa and the African National Congress its dominant political party.

But the ANC has had to work hard to try to retain its two-thirds majority beset as it is by corruption scandals, a long miners’ strike and complaints of poor governance. 

Elections are being held for both the national Parliament and the nine provincial assemblies on the same day.

The contest will be between the five larger political parties led by the African National Party which still retains its hold as the party that fought against apartheid.

There has been growing disenchantment with the ANC over the past five years because of its failure to deliver basic government services which have led to often violent public protests.

The ANC is likely to see a decline in its voting percentage as a result of the diminished popularity.

President Zuma’s own image has suffered over the controversial use of public money for fancy improvements to his personal house at Nkandla.

The fifth election which comes weeks after South Africa celebrated its 20th Freedom Day (the anniversary of the end of apartheid) will be democratic South Africa’s first election without the presence of Nelson Mandela, who passed away in December, 2013.

It is also the first election when those born after 1994 will be eligible to vote.

Known as ‘born frees’, they were born after South Africa became free of apartheid and have no memories of the repression. However, just over 30 per cent of young South Africans have registered to vote.

The ANC has had to woo different sections and has intensified its outreach to the minorities, using Mandarin language to attract the Chinese voters.

It has showcased its senior leaders of Indian descent, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, Ravi Pillay and Maggie Govender in the Indian-dominated areas, linking them with Indian leaders of ANC’s anti-apartheid struggle like Yusuf Dadoo, Monty Naicker and Mewa Ramgobin. 

The ANC was quick to suspend a local party official of Indian descent for his intemperate outburst on social networking website Facebook.

Visvin Reddy, chairman of the ANC branch in Chatsworth near Durban responded to Facebook users’ criticism of the ANC government by posting a comment telling the “whiners” to leave and “go back to India and see what a good life we have there.”

The outraged reaction led to immediate action against the offender.

There is some unease among the Indian community over the sharply anti-Indian rhetoric of the Mazibuye Africa Forum, an organisation of young Africans and the claims by some leaders of the newly formed Economic Freedom Fighters that large landholdings of Indians should be redistributed among poor Africans.

Last year, the Indian community was embarrassed by what came to be known as ‘Guptagate’ in local newspapers.

Well-connected Gupta business family flew in 200 guests from India for a family wedding on a private aircraft that was given permission to land at the Air Force Base Waterkloof.

The Gupta brothers, who had arrived in South Africa in the 1990s, built up a large business empire; their cosy relationship with President Zuma caused the incident to snowball into a major political controversy, with some activists using it to attack the Indian community.  

The Indian vote gains importance at election time as it can make a difference in Durban.

The Indian community is concentrated in the Durban area and in some other regions after the Asiatic Land Tenure Act of 1947 forced Indians to move into designated areas.

Prosperous Indians in business and the professions and those who have benefited from the government’s affirmative politics back the ANC. But other sections of Indians lean towards the Democratic Alliance as a liberal party.

Under South Africa’s electoral system, voters choose parties rather than individuals.

The electoral system is based on proportional representation, seats are allocated depending on the percentage of the total votes polled by a political party, and legislators are chosen according to seniority on the party list. 

The ANC won 264 seats out of 400 in the last elections with 65.9 per cent of the total votes polled, the Democratic Alliance got 30 seats and the Inkatha Freedom Party 18 seats. 

The main opposition, the Democratic Party, which is the party in power in the Western Cape province, the only province that is not controlled by the ANC, has a good record in the government.

It has been steadily gaining in popularity over the years and had a surprisingly good showing in the municipal elections a year ago.

Other political parties include the Congress of the People, a party started by dissident ANC leaders before the last elections, the Economic Freedom Fighters party led by Julius Malema, who earlier headed the ANC’s now dissolved Youth League.

The EEF advocates expropriation of land and redistribution of wealth which attracts young Africans.

A stagnant economy, labour unrest and high unemployment (running at 24 percent), scandals and a poor record of governance have diminished President Zuma’s image -- he was booed at Mandela’s memorial service -- and the ANC’s vote share will depend on its ability to persuade reluctant supporters to go out to vote.

Image: Jacob Zuma, leader of South Africa's ruling African National Congress, sings for his supporters at the Pietermaritzburg high court outside Durban.

Photograph: Siphiwe Sibeko/Courtesy Reuters

Shubha Singh