Race and Politics in post-apartheid South Africa


How the latest municipal elections have marked a shift in South Africans’ approach to politics


One could hardly find in the world a country as complex and contradictory as South Africa.

Twenty-two years ago -under the untiring leadership and the unshakable determination of Mandela- the country was walking its way out of the apartheid regime that for 56 years had kept South Africa’s black majority in a condition of discrimination, oppression and fear.

Twenty-two years ago, the South African people was writing one of the brightest chapters of the world’s recent history: Mandela’s rise to power came to symbolize the rise to freedom of all oppressed people worldwide and had a significance and an impact that went much beyond the borders of South Africa.

Twenty-two years ago, Mandela became South Africa’s first black President and the African National Congress (ANC) became the dominant party in the country’s political landscape.

Nevertheless, contradictions did not take long to emerge.

The ANC, in fact, was a black-dominated party whose political legitimacy was based on having defended the rights of the black people against the white minority and having defeated apartheid. And this rhetoric was further strengthened over the years: as other parties emerged, the leaders of the ANC went back to the fight for black equality to secure the support of the black voters and to weaken parties such as the mostly-white Democratic Alliance (DA) that could not refer to any comparable achievement as the defeat of apartheid was.

The result was thus the emergence of a South African political landscape in which allegiance to parties is mostly ethnically based and political views are mostly racially justified. These perceptions have constantly defined the political interactions between the country’s diverse ethnic groups and have paradoxically made of a “rainbow nation” that had long fought for equality one in which race still influences politics.

All this, though, is now about to change.

In the municipal elections held on the 3rd of August, in fact, new dynamics have taken shape and have come to redefine the country’s political environment.

For the first time since 1994 votes were not influenced by history but rather by a concern over future, and people cast their votes not on the basis of traditional ethnic affiliation but on the basis of their assessment of politicians’ performance.

What the elections made clear is that a new approach to politics and a new political sensitivity has gradually emerged among voters – and the consequence of this new awareness was a blown for President Zuma’s ANC and a success for Maimane’s DA. Tired of a political establishment dominated by corruption, scandals and lack of transparency, tired of a stagnating economy with unemployment at 26%, and tired of a poverty whose “face is still black” and of a persistent inequality between poor black workers and wealthy white employers, many black voters who in the past had loyally supported the ANC and all it represented turned their back to it and voted for the DA.

It is thus in this changing political context that Zuma found himself paying the price of his poor political performance and that the DA obtained a stunning success winning in cities as relevant as Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Nelson Mandela Bay and challenging the ANC in Pretoria and Johannesburg.

What took place on the 3rd of August was the biggest shake-up in the country’s post-apartheid’s political order and the most impressive change in the people’s political awareness since 1994.  This new approach to politics, to the significance of voting, and to the accountability of politicians marked in fact a real turning-point for a country in which -despite apartheid having formally ended twenty-two years ago- race and politics actually continued to go hand in hand.

In 1994, black people went to vote for the first time as free and self-aware black citizens. Today they have gone to vote as informed and self-aware South African citizens.

A new chapter has thus begun for South Africa – one in which the past is past and apartheid memories have been consigned to history.



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Hi! My name is Marta Furlan. I am from Italy and was born in Milan in 1993. I speak five languages, my main areas of interest are the Middle East and Islamist terrorism and my great passion is traveling. I'm majoring in Foreign Languages for International Relations at the Catholic University. Last year I attended a summer course at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on the role of Israel in the Middle East, and have recently had been working in South Africa at the Chamber of Commerce in Johannesburg. I am currently completing my thesis on the development of jihadist terrorism by Al Qaeda in ISIS. Follow my blog if you have a strong interest in International Relations, especially Middle East.

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