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Opinion

The New Republic: South Africa's New Black Opposition Party Can't COPE

Jacob Zuma
Themba Hadebe/AP

A theory of racial politics that shed light on last year's U.S. presidential election could perhaps have been used to better effect by a new opposition party in South Africa. The theory—promulgated by Shelby Steele, a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution—is that blacks who succeed in mainstream America are either race-stoking "challengers" or race-conciliatory "bargainers." While Steele's assessment was dead wrong stateside—it failed to adequately account for Obama's success—his framework was largely valid. Had it been leveraged by South Africans who opposed the presidential candidacy of Jacob Zuma, head of the ruling black-led African National Congress (ANC), things today might look very different for the G-20 nation.

Since 1994—when apartheid ended, Nelson Mandela came to power, and South Africa became a democracy—the country has been stymied by something of a Thomas Frankian paradox. Most middle- and upper-class whites there have refused to vote for the apartheid-ending ANC, even though its neoliberal economic policies—including partial deregulation and inflation targeting—distinctly favor them. Likewise, poor black voters, still seduced by the ANC's liberation narrative, consistently vote against their own economic interests, leaving many of these have-nots worse off still.

Enter COPE, the Congress of the People, a black-led opposition party that emerged late last year and promised to challenge South Africa's racially defined voting patterns. Comprising former President Thabo Mbeki's old ANC allies, it was the first genuine multiracial opposition that threatened to upset the ANC's dominance since the end of apartheid.

The ANC received 63 percent of the parliamentary vote in 1994, and nearly 70 percent in 2004. The largest (and largely white) opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), managed to win the support of many disgruntled whites and Afrikaners who had previously voted for the National Party, led by the country's last white president, F.W. de Klerk. But without significant black support, the DA has never been able to compete with the ANC on a national level. The party, led today by Helen Zille, the 58-year-old white mayor of Cape Town, has made incremental gains, notably winning 16 percent in last week's election, its best-ever total—as well as an impressive majority win in the Western Cape province (Cape Town is its capital), which is largely white and mixed race. In the weeks prior to the election, Zille courted these voters by criticizing the ANC and sensationally attacking Zuma, warning that he was a "one-man constitution wrecking machine."

COPE, meantime, adopted a "bargaining" strategy—in this case, appealing to middle-class white South Africans while promising upward mobility to the poor black majority and hoping its slick professionalism would appeal to the emerging black middle class. "Bargainers," according to Steele, reassure whites that they will not be blamed for their country's racist past so long as they abandon racism in the voting booth. "Challengers," by contrast, aggressively leverage the history of racism and pressure whites to make concessions, such as agreeing to affirmative action-like policies. As a result, the theory holds, challengers enjoy immediate material gain, while their white counterparts gain some amount of racial redemption.

In February, COPE co-founder Mosiuoa Lekota, the country's former defense minister, criticized the ANC's affirmative-action policies, likening them to "job reservation" under apartheid—a racial quota system that ensured government jobs for Afrikaners. Young white taxpayers, he asserted, should not bear the cost of affirmative-action policies (even though, according to the Commission for Employment Equity—which advises the minister of labor on relevant matters—white women benefit more from the policy than black men do).

Lekota's rhetoric undercut whites' anxieties, provided them a sense of racial redemption, and sent a message of post-racialism. Just as Barack Obama gave voice to white bitterness in his March 2008 speech on race in Philadelphia—"When they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job," he said, "or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time,"—COPE, it seemed, was beginning to acknowledge the racial grievances aired in private by many white South Africans.

In the end, though, bargaining proved too risky a strategy. After all, unlike in the U.S., whites in South Africa do not make up a majority of the electorate, and so the tactic of overtly wooing them was and is a losing proposition. Add to that more pedestrian errors, like near-invisibility in the media, and the outcome was all but inevitable. But it was the party's ideological incoherence and posturing that left it with a disappointingly narrow slice of the electorate. For instance, while the ANC rented 3,300 buses to bring voters to a 200,000-person rally in central Johannesburg, COPE held its final pre-election event in the swanky Hilton ballroom in Sandton, a wealthy suburb to which many of the nouveaux riches have fled. In a bizarre blend of religion and alarmism, COPE's leaders invited the audience, primarily black men and women in business suits, to pray for 30 percent of the vote and then listen to a series of speeches—peppered with an odd array of quotations from the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Frantz Fanon— denouncing the ANC for its totalitarian decision-making and populist economic policies. At one point, COPE's Gauteng provincial leader, Lawrence Khosa, likened Zuma's rise to the reign of terror in post-revolutionary France.

What's more, COPE failed to make explicit its position on affirmative action. Though Lekota's position was clear, the rest of the party equivocated. Even its official manifesto was vague: nominally committed to retaining affirmative action but open to reviewing its implementation. This left the party awkwardly straddling bargainer and challenger positions, placing the party in a no-man's land that confused and alienated potential supporters. In the end, COPE's leaders did not have the political resolve to bluntly support race-based redress, and they were too timid to openly embrace non-racialism with a principled renunciation of affirmative action. As a result, many would-be white voters were left unable to affirm COPE's commitment to post-racialism, while many "buppies"—South Africa's black middle class constitutes about six percent of the total population and is rapidly expanding, thus making it a much-targeted constituency—feared losing the very affirmative action benefits that have helped them join the middle class. The end result: COPE was trounced, and received less than eight percent of the vote.

COPE must now regroup and reconsider how it will become a post-racial party capable of attracting anxious whites, maintaining the trust of self-interested buppies, and building support in the impoverished townships. South Africa's democracy is maturing fast, but the psychological scars of apartheid and the racial allegiances it produced will color voting patterns for years to come. COPE's best shot at success may come from demonstrating to political competitors and voters alike that color-blind policies and ideologies are not essential for building a substantively equal post-democratic society. Some of the logic of challenger politics, such as the need to address South Africa's deep racial legacies in explicit racial terms, can be successfully articulated in the gentle, inclusive, and non-alienating voice of a skilled bargainer.

Eusebius McKaiser is a political and social analyst at the Center for the Study of Democracy in Johannesburg.

Sasha Polakow-Suransky is an associate editor at Foreign Affairs.