“Back to reality”: the war in Gaza shakes up the electoral campaign in South Africa | Elections

by MMC
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Cape Town, South Africa – Three months before the highly anticipated general elections in South Africa, the political landscape is being remade.

Since Cyril Ramaphosa became president in 2018, domestic issues like corruption in government, rolling power outagesand a faltering economy have been hotly debated, but Israel’s war in the distant Gaza Strip has become a key election issue in recent months.

Since the apartheid era, the question of Palestine has been a major dividing point in South African politics, with the white government standing firmly on the side of Israel while the anti-apartheid movement saw Palestinian resistance aligned with his.

But Israel’s continued war in Gaza since October has forced political parties to lay their cards on the table. The two largest parties in particular – the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) – will likely see their constituencies shift due to their positions on the war.

The ANC-led government has adopted an unambiguously pro-Palestinian stance. South Africa was one of the first states to describe Israel’s actions in Gaza following the October 7 Hamas attack as “genocide”, and early on referred Israel to the International Criminal Court. In January, Pretoria also dragged Israel to the highest legal authority in the world, the International Court of Justice.

The DA, by contrast, has flip-flopped between its initial unwavering support for Israel and more recent ambivalent rhetoric about “peace.”

On October 8, Emma Powell, the shadow minister for international relations and cooperation, issued a statement condemning “the unprovoked attack by Hamas on Israeli territory today during the religious holiday of Simchat Torah…The DA condemns this senseless violence and all acts of terror against innocent civilians, women and children and calls on the aggressors of this conflict to withdraw immediately.

A month later, as the death toll in Gaza rose sharply, the party adopted more centrist rhetoric, with leader John Steenhuisen declaring: “The (DA) stands in solidarity with both Palestinians and Israelis who are seeking a solution.” two-state… we adopt a rationality based on peaceful coexistence for a secure Israel and a free Palestinian state. »

Contrary to Economic Freedom Fighters and other small opposition parties, the DA has never called for a ceasefire or used the term “genocide” regarding Israel’s killing of Palestinians.

And before the May 29 voteit was the ANC’s initiatives that proved extremely popular in South Africa and beyond.

Ambassador Vusimuzi Madonsela (right) of South Africa attends a hearing at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the legal consequences of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, in The Hague, Netherlands, on February 20, 2024 (Robin van Lonkhuijsen/EPA -EFE)

A realignment of the electorate

Before October, the chances of the DA pulling off a surprise at the national level were increasing.

In the 2019 general election, turnout was just 49 percent – ​​the lowest since the first democratic vote in the country in 1994.

The ANC also appeared to be a failed party, with less than 50 percent of respondents to an October survey by the Social Research Foundation (SRF) supporting it. Demonstrations against the rising cost of living were becoming frequent and Ramaphosa’s re-election campaign was tangled in a scandal after about $500,000 in cash was stolen from his game farm.

But the parties’ divergent positions on the war have helped bolster the struggling ANC’s chances.

In the Western Cape province, governed by the DA since 2009 and where it traditionally dominates, a realignment of the electorate is underway. The province, one of South Africa’s largest, is home to Cape Town, the country’s parliamentary capital and second-largest city.

Luwayne Pretorius, a 46-year-old beauty industry worker, says that as a gay Afrikaner man, the ANC has given him more rights than any other country in the world, but his loyalty is t turned towards the DA when Ramaphosa’s predecessor, Jacob Zuma, took power in 2009.

Zuma, who said in 2006 that same-sex marriages were “a disgrace to the nation and to God”, was also implicated in several corruption scandals during his term in office which ended in 2018.

However, Pretorius’ position has changed dramatically due to current events.

“By taking such a strong stand against Israeli apartheid, it really says something about the ANC,” Pretorius said. “But with the DA, especially post-apartheid, there is no way any party can justify supporting another country that is committing ethnic cleansing while simulating an apartheid state similar to the one we have seen in South Africa. »

Historically, foreign policy has not influenced South Africans’ voting decisions, says Robert Mattes, professor of government and public policy at the University of Strathclyde and co-founder of Afrobarometer, a pan-African survey organization. policy.

“There is a lot of activism in Cape Town, largely among the colored community and the Muslim part of that community, but that is probably the part of the voters who already vote for the ANC. For Muslim voters who are highly motivated by a party’s approach to Palestine, those who vote for the DA will be angered and outraged, but not enough to cause them to join the ANC. If they move away from the DA, it will be towards smaller parties.

Na’eem Jeenah, a senior fellow at the Johannesburg-based think tank Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA), agrees with Mattes that in general, South Africans vote primarily based on domestic issues.

But this time it will be different, he said.

“There will definitely be a shift in DA voters because of its support for Israel and its refusal to talk about the genocide in Gaza,” Jeenah told Al Jazeera.

He predicts that while some will vote for the ANC because of their pro-Palestinian actions, many others will choose other parties like the Muslim party Al Jama-ah to protest the DA without “rewarding the ANC for their vote “.

Protesters wave a Palestinian flag as they gather outside the International Court of Justice (ICJ) as judges rule on emergency measures against Israel following South Africa’s accusations that the Israeli military operation in Gaza is a state-led genocide, in The Hague, Netherlands. January 26, 2024 (Piroschka van de Wouw/Reuters)

Change position, change allegiance

Some argue that the DA’s initial position changed due to growing anger among its large and crucial Muslim and black constituencies, particularly in the Western Cape, over the war.

But the party’s efforts have not yet yielded the expected result.

Cape Town Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis of the DA has pledged R400,000 ($20,790) and free use of a stadium for two friendly matches between the Palestine men’s national team and two South African teams in February.

But from the first match, President Ramaphosa, who attended the match, was welcomed and cheered. On the other hand, Hill-Lewis, who, according to Pretorius, “throws crumbs to the population”, was booed.

The ANC and DA did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment on the issue of the war in Gaza affecting voters’ decisions in the upcoming elections.

But within the electorate, many have already decided which party to vote for.

Nazeck Booley, a former DA voter, is switching allegiance to a smaller party.

“This war has made me more aware of what is happening in the city (Cape Town) and that apartheid is alive and well. It was like a reality check. I always had a vision of the DA as being citizen centered and ensuring the city performed better than others in South Africa, but I failed to realize what really motivates them…anyone with a conscience will not vote for the DA.

Wiedaad Achmat, a staunch DA supporter, is “99% sure” she will vote for the ANC, which she says has made her proud to be South African and “has stood up to a whole bunch of bullies.”

Her decision, she said, was because “the DA is racist and serves a murderous, genocidal, despicable and warmongering Israeli government.”

“Previously, I could not in good conscience vote for the ANC because they have looted the coffers and lined their pockets and are corrupt and immoral… basically all government institutions are a huge failure,” he said. she adds. “It’s the 1% that’s holding me back, but for me, the ANC’s stance against Israel outweighs the woes of load shedding and the state of our economy. »

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