Political Elites

South Africa Table of Contents

Although change was evident at all levels of society as South Africa began to dismantle apartheid during the 1990s, particularly dramatic changes were occurring in the country's political and social leadership. Not only were new leaders emerging on the national level, but shifts were also occurring within political organizations, as new political expectations and aspirations arose and as new demands were placed on political leaders at all levels.

Since 1948 the country's governing class, the political elite, had been dominated by Afrikaners. Afrikaners held most high positions in government, including the legislature, the judiciary, the cabinet, and the senior ranks of the military and security services. Afrikaners also came to dominate the larger community of leaders, the power elite, by assuming important roles in the civil service bureaucracy, and to a lesser extent in business, the universities, and the media. Afrikaner dominance was reinforced by the rules of apartheid, in large part because the government's security and intelligence services helped to enforce the rules of apartheid through other institutions.

In general, during the apartheid era, English-speaking whites were less important in the political and power elites. They played only secondary roles in most areas of government. English speakers were, nevertheless, prominent in commerce and industry, where the Afrikaners' success had lagged behind their political achievements, as is explained by Thompson and Prior. By the 1980s, English-speaking whites also held important positions in universities and the media, and in a few areas of government.

In the early 1990s, these political and power elites were evolving, as is demonstrated in the authoritative survey of elites, Who's Who in South African Politics , by the South African writer Shelagh Gastrow. Gastrow divided South Africa's dominant political leaders into four major categories: political leaders within the Afrikaner community, most associated with the NP; an older generation of black opposition leaders, most within the ANC; a younger generation of leaders emerging from the Black Consciousness Movement; and a new group of labor leaders who had risen to prominence as the trade union movement strengthened during the 1970s and 1980s. A fifth category might be added--according to South African political scientist Roger Southall, who reviewed Gastrow's book--the small number of white political leaders who attempted to reshape white politics along nonracial, democratic lines.

A subsequent revised edition of Gastrow's book identified 118 individuals--110 men and only eight women--as constituting South Africa's evolving political elite in 1992. Among the obvious changes occurring at that time was the emergence of formerly imprisoned, exiled, or banned opposition leaders, who had been released from prison or had been legally recognized since early 1990. They could then be legally quoted in the country's media, and their ideas were being widely disseminated. In addition, new challengers arose to replace formerly entrenched leaders, especially conservative blacks, coloureds, and Indians who had gained office through various forms of state patronage in the black homelands or in other institutions of government.

Changes were also occurring within the senior ranks of the organizations from which the country's new leaders had emerged. As the ANC, for example, was forced to cooperate with former opponents, especially the NP, in pursuing national goals, new alliances and friendships were formed, shaped in part by a pragmatic appraisal of the political realities of the time. In addition, former opposition groups--especially the ANC--began to revise their rhetoric from that of guerrilla opponents of government, or "states in exile," to adapt to their new positions of responsibility. The ANC's best educated, skilled technocrats, capable of managing governmental and other bureaucracies, were gaining particular prominence.

At the same time, a greater distance was developing between these educated elites and the less educated rank-and-file within their own organizations. In particular, there was a growing distance between the ANC and its radical youth wing in late 1994 and 1995. There was also a growing distance between the ANC leadership and their former ally, the South African Communist Party (SACP). Ties between these two organizations had not only been close in the past; their membership and leadership rolls had overlapped.

In some cases, the new elites appeared to have more in common with members of rival political organizations than with their organization's own members. Several new government leaders, for example, were drawn from traditional African elites--royal families, chiefs, and influential clans. President Mandela, while a university-trained lawyer, is also a descendant of a leading family among the Thembu (Tembu), a Xhosa subgroup. Like Mandela, the prominent Zulu leader and minister of home affairs, Mangosuthu (Gatsha) Buthelezi, is university-educated and the product of aristocratic origins. Buthelezi, a member of the Zulu royal family, is also a chief within the Buthelezi sub-group (also, "tribe") of the Zulu.

Other members of South Africa's new government also represent ethnic elites. For example, the minister of public enterprises in 1995, Stella Sigcau, is the daughter of a well-known Pondo paramount chief, Botha Sigcau. Stella Sigcau also had served as chief minister in the Transkei government during the early 1980s.

Many former ANC officials who were in government office in the mid-1990s had worked to overcome factional differences based on ethnicity during the apartheid era. Although the ANC is often stereotyped as "Xhosa-dominated," and a number of its officers are Xhosa, several ethnic groups have been represented in the ANC's senior ranks. Thomas Nkobi, treasurer general from 1973 through the early 1990s, represents a subgroup within the Zimbabwe-based Shona people. Former Secretary General Cyril Ramaphosa and National Working Committee member Sydney Mufamadi are Venda (VaVenda--see Ethnic Groups and Language, ch. 2). Ramaphosa's former deputy, Jacob Zuma, is one of several Zulu leaders who rose to prominence within the ANC. The ANC's former security and intelligence specialist, Patrick "Terror" Lekota, and former MK leader Joe Modise are Sotho (BaSotho). Several popular regional leaders are Tswana (BaTswana). In general, these leaders have rejected arguments that favored the use of ethnicity to define political factions.

Age differences appeared more divisive than ethnicity within the ANC during the early and the mid-1990s. There were heated debates over questions of political succession, as the ANC's aging leaders--many over the age of seventy--faced challenges from the generations below them. Nelson Mandela was seventy-five years old when he was elected president in 1994, and several other ANC leaders were more than seventy years of age. Their most likely successors--especially Mbeki, Ramaphosa, Zuma, and the ANC's former director of intelligence, "Mac" Maharaj--were roughly two decades younger. Some of the ANC's younger militants threatened revolt against senior party figures in the early months of the new government, as their demands for jobs, homes, and improved living standards continued to be unmet. Criticism of the "older generation" was fueled in late 1994 and early 1995, when the president's former wife, Winnie Mandela, clashed with the government and was ousted as a deputy minister, as she championed the grievances of the ANC's militant youth.

As the apartheid system was being dismantled, some members of the Afrikaner elite in government, the civil service, and the security services reacted with impressive flexibility. By adapting quickly to the new environment, many of them not only retained their valued positions in the bureaucracy but also won new respect from former adversaries. As the ANC assumed responsibility for the security establishment, the police, and the intelligence services, ANC leaders were often able to work closely and cooperatively with Afrikaners who had once been so effective in excluding blacks from the political process.

The shift in power and influence among the country's political elites had begun well before the April 1994 elections. An important arena in which this power shift occurred was that of the political negotiations concerning the interim constitution of 1993. During those negotiations, as difficult and unpromising as they sometimes appeared, then-governing whites began, some for the first time, to view their black counterparts as legitimate partners in the decision-making process. At the same time, many black leaders adjusted smoothly to the new climate of political tolerance.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress