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The ruling party has to confront a decline in support in SA’s cities, writes Ivor Chipkin

— Featured in Sunday Times

Chipkin is executive director of the Public Affairs Research Institute and associate professor at the University of the Witwatersrand. This is an extract of a public lecture he delivered at Wits on Thursday.

South Africa is in the midst of dramatic change. We are witnessing the decline of African nationalism in South Africa, and the approaching local elections may well expedite this process.

In May 2014 the ANC scored its worst electoral result in 20 years. It achieved 62.15% of the poll, down from 65.9% in 2009 and a hair short of 70% in 2004. The victory, though massive by South African and international standards, has provoked growing debate about the future of the ANC.

For a long while the ruling party’s grasp on power has seemed unassailable, so much so that political analysis in South Africa settled on the notion of a “dominant-party system”.

However there are scholars who now take seriously the prospect of the ANC losing power in the foreseeable future. The political scientist Anthony Butler even advises party reformers: “Don’t panic!”

The weakening of the ANC raises a fundamental question about South Africa as a nation.

Until now, the ANC, together with its alliance partners, has given flesh to the idea of a South African people – in its membership and in its campaigns and through its activities of resistance.

Is the South African nation secure either when the ANC is no longer hegemonic or if it is no longer committed to its own brand of nationalism?

In 1987, historians Shula Marks and Stanley Trapido sketched the broad contours of a contemporary history of South Africa. On their terms, 20th-century South Africa was made in the colossal struggle between two nationalisms, Afrikaner and African.

There was something asymmetrical about this struggle, however, not simply in that Afrikaner nationalism had state power at its disposal from 1948. Afrikaner nationalism was a classical nationalism. It defined the political community on the basis of race, language and religion. Moreover, the National Party rejected the very idea of South Africa as founded on the Union of 1910.

The peculiarity of the ANC’s nationalism stands out from this perspective. The ANC took as given that the “‘people of South Africa” referred to the residents of the Union of South Africa. The peoples thrown together in a common territory by colonial annexation and imperial war were regarded as a common people or, at least, potentially a common people.

What is at stake is the very idea of South Africa as a unitary state, founded on equal citizenship and social equality.

That is, African nationalism in South Africa has been the principal force in favour of an expansive conception of the South African people. This vision of South Africa has been anything but national. Instead it shared with other third world movements, from Indonesia to Guatemala, a commitment to the idea of multiplicity and multinationalism grounded in a vision of social equality.

Between 1994 and 2004 the ANC’s rise seemed unstoppable.

Across all nine provinces and in most municipalities it outperformed what it scored in the historic election of 1994.

Then, from 2009 its fortunes changed. The swing was strongest in the Western Cape but was by no means limited to there. Even in provinces where the ANC had reached nearly 90% of the vote in 2004 – Limpopo (89.2%) and Mpumalanga (86.34%) – opposition parties grew strongly.

In North West, for example, ANC support tumbled from a high of 81.83% in 2004 to 67.79% in 2014.

The decline was most notable in the large urban centres, where opposition parties were traditionally strong.

These results suggest that the ANC’s 2007 elective conference in Polokwane constituted a watershed in the ANC’s electoral fortunes.

The past 10 years of election results do not simply tell a story of ANC decline, however.

Between 1994 and 2004 the ANC’s support in KwaZulu-Natal tracked its record across the country. Support grew from about a third of votes in 1994 (though it probably did much better than that) to shy of 50% in 2004, when it beat the Inkatha Freedom Party and formed the provincial government.

But whereas ANC support began to fall everywhere else after that, it continued to climb in KwaZulu-Natal. In 2009, the ANC won the provincial election with 63.97% of the vote and in 2014 it came in just shy of a two-thirds majority (65.31%) in the provincial legislature. The 16% growth between 2004 and 2009 came from voters in the former homeland of KwaZulu.

This was an anomaly relative to trends in the rest of the country.

The growing dependence of the ANC on KwaZulu-Natal voters may go some way to explain why there was a rush in 2004 to push through the Communal Land Rights Act.

Dr Anika Claassens and Professor Lungisile Ntsebeza, two of South Africa’s most important scholars on land reform, suggest that the law was introduced to placate chiefs and the Zulu king in the context of stiff rivalry between the ANC and IFP in the build-up to the 2004 election.

The strategy seems to have worked in KwaZulu, where, as we have seen, the ANC has progressively displaced the IFP in its traditional strongholds. As the ANC appeals to a regional and rural base, so it is less and less attractive in other parts of the country.

If in the August local government elections the ANC suffers significant setbacks in the urban areas, it may well consolidate its transformation to a rural and ethnic party. Jacob Zuma’s strength in the ANC lies with a political alliance based on regional and ethnic players and he has certainly expedited this transformation.

Yet his removal will likely do little to change these structural dynamics. The ANC is becoming a regional, ethnic party.

The decline of African nationalism is further aided by the state of opposition parties and the resurgence of black nationalism – more like Afrikaner nationalism than African nationalism – among student movements and some political parties such as the EFF.

The DA may be committed to a “non-racial” vision of South Africa, though shorn of its progressive and egalitarian elements.

What is at stake is the very idea of South Africa as a unitary state, founded on equal citizenship and social equality. The decline of African nationalism in South Africa, therefore, does not signal the weakening of ethno-nationalist politics but will likely mark its rise.