Changing one’s vote still too close to self-denial for too many - Businesslive

Apr 08, 2019
8 April 2019 - We are, as IRR polling repeatedly demonstrates, a country of more common than clashing interests. Affirming them, though, does mean defeating ideas, old and new, intended only to divide us.

Michael Morris

It often seems South Africans “reach with easy familiarity for identities forged for them by historical figures they loathe, values they reject or forces they regard as spent”.

I used these words a few years ago as a prelude to saying: “Asking South Africans to change their political allegiance is still often akin to asking them to deny who they are.”

Yet, this was “not universally true, or fixed, today, and it was not universally true of the past either”, I went on, citing as an arguably obscure example National Party MP Bruckner de Villiers “being carried shoulder high into parliament by coloured supporters who, in the 1929 election, had helped him secure the Stellenbosch seat”.

I thought of De Villiers and the meaning of that historical vignette after reading two fellow columnists in recent weeks against the backdrop not only of the May elections, but the greater battle of ideas — as we at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) call it — in favour of principles and policies capable of assuring SA’s potential as an open, free and prosperous society.

Steven Friedman alerted (middle-class) readers to the risk of misjudging the mass of voters by writing in March: “They know the government is often corrupt or arrogant and don’t like this any more than middle-class voters [but] support the ANC as long as they do not believe the corruption has become so serious that it wipes out the benefits they receive.” Like any political thinking, this was open to debate, but it wasn’t “irrational”.

Some weeks earlier Jonny Steinberg tested the question, “How much power does an SA president actually have?” by turning it around to ask, “How governable is SA?”

“The short answer,” he decided, “is: not very. A governable country is one in which levels of trust and common feeling run high. It is when people believe they are in the same boat, their destinies mutually entwined, that they make sacrifices for one another.” In the absence of such common feeling, “to defer anything to the future is to put one’s fate in the hands of strangers”.

Both Friedman’s and Steinberg’s thinking reminded me of Bruckner de Villiers in 1929 — and after. Midway through his term as Stellenbosch MP, De Villiers sided with DF Malan in rejecting the amalgamation that created the United Party (UP), affirming instead the purified white nationalism that, a decade later, bore apartheid.

The first irony in De Villiers’s story is his defeat in April 1938 by the UP’s Henry Fagan, who would chair the Fagan commission of the mid-1940s, which argued for race law reform, especially relaxing influx control over black people in urban centres. De Villiers’s party responded with the Sauer Commission, the progenitor of apartheid policy.

The second, almost poignant, irony given the enthusiasm of those undoubtedly rational coloured supporters in 1929, is that the MP is nowadays memorialised in the Bruckner de Villiers Primary School in Stellenbosch’s Idas Valley, which, under the Group Areas Act of 1950, became a coloureds only suburb. It is not anymore, not by law, but as elsewhere in SA, apartheid forged divided destinies, identities and ways of thinking that continue to shape popular choices as much as middle-class thinking.

The bridge that links the “strangers” of Steinberg’s conception and unifies the rationality addressed by Friedman is the greater truth of South Africans, even if their personal histories obscure it. We are, as IRR polling repeatedly demonstrates, a country of more common than clashing interests. Affirming them, though, does mean defeating ideas, old and new, intended only to divide us.

The prize is tantalising. As Steinberg observed, for all its ungovernability SA is “very much a democracy”, a condition he defined as “a regime in which those who govern come short when they forget that their power is borrowed”.

• Morris is head of media at the IRR.

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