22 Oct 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive
PW Botha has a latter-day provincial and tactical successor in the form of Marius Fransman, Western Cape leader of the ANC and a ‘warrior for race’, writes Tony Leon
IN NOVEMBER 2004, I was in New York City the day after President George Bush had won re-election against the odds. Until the day before, the liberal New York Times had been reporting on the multiplicity of factors that favoured his Democratic opponent, John Kerry. They were spoilt for choice between the invasion of Iraq on a false prospectus, a cratering economy and a ballooning budget deficit.
However, the day after Bush won, its columnist, Nicholas Kristof, posed the question: "How was it," he asked, that "unemployed waitresses in Ohio stood in line to vote for tax breaks for billionaires?" For the essence of the Republican economic offering back then — in contrast to its even more hara-kiri tactics today — was a version of "trickle-down economics". Bush had presided over the largest modern tax cut for the seriously rich which, his party suggested, would spur economic activity down the income chain. The increasing number of unemployed and underemployed Americans, including Kristof’s waitresses, suggested otherwise. But many of them, apparently, voted for the architect of their immiseration.
Kristof answered the question by suggesting that the Republicans had borrowed a stratagem first defined, ironically, by the father of false consciousness, Karl Marx: ignore class interests and mobilise people along the lines of values. In that election, by concentrating attention on "God, Gays and Guns", Bush had mobilised support from sections of the population most adversely affected by his economic prescriptions, but whose social views he best articulated.
Locally, the indifferent performance of the African Christian Democratic Party suggests there is no electoral profit in values. But South Africa provides generous returns for race mobilisation. It was ever thus, as countless white elections have proved. And when the war between the then two largest white parties in the 1970s — the National Party (NP) and the United Party (UP) — reached saturation point, the NP Cape leader of the day, PW Botha, found another variant on the theme in a 1972 by-election in Oudtshoorn. He accused the UP of the additional sin of being "Boere-haters". His party’s results improved.
Botha has a latter-day provincial and tactical successor in the form of Marius Fransman, Western Cape leader of the African National Congress. Last week, he claimed that 98% of land and property owners in Cape Town were not only "white" but, in particular, "Jewish". Doubtless Fransman has never heard of the 19th-century German Marxist thinker, August Bebel, who warned that left-wing anti-Semitism was "the socialism of fools". And as to the facts, Fransman could not explain how he knew the racial or religious origins of local landowners, as the former have been expunged from the deeds registry since 1994, and even the benighted apartheid regime did not require the religious identity of property owners to be declared. Anyway, the fires of prejudice and the embers of resentment are always better stoked by anecdote than by fact.
Few middle-class homeowners in Cape Town will recognise any of the favourable treatment that Fransman suggests the Democratic Alliance bestows on its core supporters. The local rates bill has gone through the roof and a mayoral insider advised me recently that only Durban parallels Cape Town in its aggressive redistributionist levies. "Squeezing the rich (and the not so rich) until the pips squeak" might have originated in the British Labour Party in the 1970s, but the idea has now settled below Table Mountain.
And, doubtless, too, in his part-time capacity as deputy international relations and co-operation minister, Fransman will soon enough send out cables to all South African embassies abroad instructing them to celebrate and propagate the 20th anniversary of South African democracy, and in particular the "miracle" of its nonracial era.
Despite the violence this all does to the legacy of Nelson Mandela and 1994, I suppose it makes rough sense: deflect from the facts of sky-high unemployment, double and rising deficits on the current account, the budget and the trade balance, and scarce and increasingly scared foreign investors. Leave that to Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan in his medium-term budget to conjure something up. Anyway, without using race as the whip, how on earth do you keep everyone, from black-empowerment billionaires to unemployed farm workers, in the tent?
Fransman might be a crude race warrior but the launch sounds emanating last weekend from Julius Malema suggest he will soon be outbid on his preferred terrain. Much of the future of South Africa is about its contested past. Somewhere in Simon Schama’s sprawling study on the French Revolution, Citizens, is a useful reminder of what happened to the Jacobins: their revolutionary rhetoric made their future governance all but impossible. There is something very fresh in the old saying that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it".
• Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA