Malaika Mahlatsi9 May 2024 | 9:25

MALAIKA MAHLATSI: Why it matters to listen to ANC voters

There’s a strong temptation, one that must be resisted, to reduce support for the ANC to ignorance and illiteracy on the side of its voters, writes Malaika Mahlatsi.

MALAIKA MAHLATSI: Why it matters to listen to ANC voters

Malaika wa Azania's newly published book, 'Why we vote for the ANC'. Picture: Supplied

On 8 May, almost a decade to the day that my first book, Memoirs of a Born Free: Reflections on the Rainbow Nation, was published, I launched my third book, Why We Vote For The ANC: Conversations With Young ANC Voters.

The launch, which took place at the Freedom Park Heritage Site in Tshwane (Pretoria), was attended by South Africans from all walks of life – South Africa’s Chief of State Protocol, Ambassador Nonceba Losi; South Africa’s Solicitor-General, Fhedzisani Pandelani; the Gauteng MEC for Economic Development, Tasneem Motara; several academics, community leaders, African National Congress (ANC) leaders, members of the opposition, students and ordinary South Africans who wanted to engage in the discussion about why, despite its complicated legacy, the ANC continues to enjoy voter support in the country – and why this support is not reflective of ignorance or illiteracy.

The idea of writing this book has always occupied my mind, as, like many South Africans, I have always been interested in understanding why the ANC continues to enjoy so much support, despite the glaring failures that it has presided over.

There’s a strong temptation, one that must be resisted, to reduce support for the ANC to ignorance and illiteracy on the side of its voters. Many who propagate this narrative do so from a position of disdain for ANC voters – seeing them as co-conspirators in the destruction of South African society.

Worse than this, ANC voters are seen as beneficiaries of corruption – as people who only support the ANC because they receive spoils from the gravy train. I have always found these narratives problematic.

For one thing, they pathologise the predominantly Black voters of the ANC, presenting them as morally bankrupt, gluttonous, and unthinking.

Furthermore, such narratives are simplistic. They scratch a portion of the surface and in the process, leave out many stories that matter. And so, just over a year ago, I finally mobilised funding and decided to hit the streets of Gauteng, my study area, to speak to young people who fit the criteria of my research undertaking: registered voters, residing in Gauteng, who do not hold ANC membership.

Members of the ANC are bound by the party’s constitution to support it and to participate in its activities. It mattered to speak to people who aren’t bound by these requirements, for their support is rooted not in party loyalty, but in individual choice. 

After interviewing 100 young people across all five regions of the province, namely Ekurhuleni, Johannesburg, Tshwane, Sedibeng and the West Rand, I had enough primary data to construct an argument that, though difficult and uncomfortable, is necessary.

The starting point of the book is to problematise the narrative of the irrational ANC voter, tracing it to the racist idea of Black people as a White man’s burden, incapable of thinking for themselves.

This paternalistic treatment of Black people, where they are seen as needing supervision because they can’t be trusted to behave rationally without a more superior person hovering over them, is rooted in our amoral past. It continues to find expression in modern South Africa because while apartheid may have been abolished, the thinking that arose from it, across the colour divide, has never ended.

It is for this reason that Black people themselves, particularly the middle class, are a loud voice in the “ANC voters are unthinking” narrative. Seeing themselves as having superior logic, and the ANC voters in rural areas and townships as being inferior in their thinking, they believe themselves to be the only ones capable of rational thought. 

The book is a demand for nuance. The story of the ANC is not a simple one, even as many are simplistic in how they analyse and articulate it.

It is a story of a political party that has failed on some fronts and succeeded on others. It is the story of an organisation that presides over corruption and maladministration – but one that has also changed the lives of millions of South Africans.

The truth about what the ANC is cannot be understood from an absolutist approach – one in which the party is either absolutely good or absolutely bad. And this is the problem with the narrative about ANC voters being unthinking – it denies the layeredness of the political choices of those who vote for the ANC. It refuses to accept that ANC voters are not uncritical of the party, that they are, in fact, its worst critics.

But one can criticise the party and still support it. One can criticise certain elements within the party and still strive to have those corrected – or believe that they can be. These multiple and seemingly contradictory truths can all exist at the same time.

And it is when we deconstruct them that we will finally make sense of why millions of South Africans – educated and illiterate, professionals and the unemployed, young and old, rural and urban, men and women, Black and White – still vote for the ANC.

Malaika Mahlatsi is a geographer and researcher at the Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation. She’s a PhD in Geography candidate at the University of Bayreuth, Germany.