South Africa’s elections always carry more than an element of race about them, this year’s municipals seemed especially so. The radical rhetoric of Julius Malema and South Africa’s populists is branching up and out across the ANC. Yet rather than a sign of a Zimbabwean turn to come, this is a reflection of the economic reforms much of Africa is experiencing in the global downturn. Party and political identity understandably remain entwined with both race and racism, and so mobilisation and participation of the nation brings with it a level of racial grandstanding. While certainly unpleasant, this vehicle for mobilising constituents around substantive economic concerns remains effective.
South Africa’s gradual retreat from the liberalised structural reforms of the last two decades will bring questions of regional investment, social welfare, industrial coordination and land tenure reform that will need broad political negotiation if they are to succeed. Apartheid songs and slogans may not be the ideal way to engage publics in these new debates, but this form of mobilisation is using race as a signifier rather than a basis for political change.
While economic structural reforms may conceivably take on a deeply racial turn, in the absence of a radical and significant support base, investors or mainstream credibility it remains a distant threat. Identity is less a cause of conflict and more a means to perceive an injustice and mobilise against it, it doesn’t necessarily spell civil war. Rather race is being invoked as means to push remarkably unradical and mainstream reforms. The full participation of South Africa’s population in the renegotiation of its upcoming reforms seems the more urgent challenge, and the stablisation of a political discourse which doesn't depend on sensationalism may still be possible. In the meantime the existing methods of public engagement can appear unsavory from the outside but there is less to fear from it than an absence of political language altogether.