South Africa's Election: A 'Racial Census', Again

South Africa's elections have been criticized--even by friendly observers--as a "racial census," because the voting pattern closely mirrors the country's racial makeup. The leading opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), wins a large majority of the white vote, while the largest governing party, the African National Congress (ANC), wins most of the black vote. Mixed-race ("coloured") and Indian voters lean towards the opposition.

Aside from a few anomalies, the pattern will continue through today's national and provincial elections, which mark twenty years since South Africa's first truly democratic elections in 1994, and the first election in the wake of Nelson Mandela's death late last year. As the first "born free" voters cast their votes, the ANC will continue its decline, and the DA will likely pick up support, while new opposition parties emerge to nibble at the margins.

Much of the coverage of the 2014 election mirrors the coverage of the 2004 election in its themes. The ANC, it is said, has delivered better services like water, electricity, and sanitation, but is troubled by corruption and anti-democratic practices. In fact, most of the improvement in services under the ANC happened in the early years, and much of it was handled by private contractors. What the ANC itself has done, it has generally done poorly.

The DA has a much stronger record of service delivery. Where it governs--most prominently, in the city of Cape Town and in the Western Cape province--it has achieved a dramatic turnaround in government performance. The key, under leader Helen Zille, has often been letting individuals and communities do things for themselves--such as build housing--rather than delegating planning and execution to bureaucrats or crony companies.

So if the DA is doing so well, why isn't it picking up even more support? Part of the answer is that the DA is in the midst of a difficult internal transition. The party must compete for black votes if it wants a chance at long-term survival. Increasingly, Zille has recruited black leaders, many of them very impressive. However, that has come at some cost to the party's traditional opposition to racial preferences in economic policy and other areas.

The DA is at no risk of losing its core constituency of white voters, but many have become less enthusiastic. At the moment, the political spotlight is on a radically different opposition party,  the Economic Freedom Fighters, who style themselves after a communist militia and whose charismatic leader, Julius Malema, was kicked out of the ANC for his hijinks. He is known for anti-white rhetoric, but his real target is the country's new black elite.

The problem South Africa faces is not the quality of its leaders or the variety of its political parties, but the very way its debates are framed. The central issue in every election is "delivery"--i.e. what the government can do for the people. That is partly a result of South Africa's constitution, whose socioeconomic rights virtually enshrine big government. It is also a result of the poverty of ideas, and a culture that fails to celebrate entrepreneurship.

An opposition party as successful and courageous as the DA--which takes free-market ideas into the heart of the townships--ought to be doing better. The problem is that it still accepts the paradigm of "delivery," a framework that favors redistributionism. South African democracy is doing far better, at 20 years, than nearby Zimbabwe was doing at the same point. Yet it remains captive to moribund ideas--not about race, but about the state.


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