Doing Politics in Bushbuckridge: Work, Welfare and the South African Elections of 2004

By Niehaus, Isak A. | Africa, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview
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Doing Politics in Bushbuckridge: Work, Welfare and the South African Elections of 2004

Niehaus, Isak A., Africa


In the South African national elections of 2004 the ruling ANC (African National Congress) increased its majority, particularly within the poorer, black, rural voting districts. Drawing on ethnographic research that I conducted in Impalahoek--a village in the Bushbuckridge municipality of the Limpopo Province--this paper investigates reasons for this pattern of voting. With reference to a survey of 87 households I show that unemployment, crime and disease had increased dramatically between 1990/1 and 2003/4. Yet, at the same time, there have been considerable improvements in access to state pensions, housing, school feeding schemes and child support grants. In this context, I argue that the ANC's election campaign highlighted the capacity of government in service provision, and that voting for the ruling party constituted a strategic attempt to obtain access to state-controlled services. Hence the election was characterized by neo-patrimonial politics and by a transactional logic of voting. Voting for the ruling party does not amount to an ideological endorsement of its policies, and discontent is more likely to be expressed through boycotting the elections rather than voting for opposition parties.


Lors des elections nationales sud-africaines de 2004, l'ANC (African National Congress), le parti au pouvoir, a accru sa majorite, notamment dans les circonscriptions rurales noires plus defavorisees. S'inspirant de recherches ethnographiques menses fi Impalahoek, village de la municipalite de Bushbuckridge dans la province du Limpopo, cet article etudie les raisons de la structure de ce vote. D'apres une enquire effectuee aupres de 87 menages, l'article montre que le chomage, la delinquance et les maladies ont considerablement augmente entre 1990-1991 et 2003-2004. On observe pourtant dans le meme temps un meilleur acces a la retraite publique, a l'hebergement, aux programmes de cantines scolaires et aux allocations familiales. Dans ce contexte, l'article soutient que la campagne electorale de l'ANC a mis en lumiere la capacite du gouvernement a fournir des services, et que voter pour le parti au pouvoir a constitue une tentative strategique d'obtenir l'acces aux services controles par l'Etat. C'est pourquoi l'election a ete caracteriste par une politique neopatrimoniale et par une logique de vote transactionnelle. Voter pour le parti au pouvoir ne saurait constituer un soutien ideologique de sa politique et les electeurs exprimeront plus facilement leur mecontentement en boycottant les elections qu'en votant pour un parti d'opposition.


During 1990 and 1991, towards the end of Apartheid, my research assistant Eliazaar Mohlala and I did a social survey of 87 of the approximately two thousand households in Impalahoek--a village in the then Northern Sotho Bantustan, Lebowa. Though our sample was not random, we sought to select an equal number of households in each village section and we asked standard questions about household histories, compositions and income earning.

Thirteen years later, on the eve of South Africa's third non-racial elections of April 2004, we revisited all previously surveyed households. Impalahoek was now located in the Bushbuckridge magisterial district of the newly constituted Limpopo (formerly Northern) Province. As our interviews progressed it became strikingly apparent that very few households had realized their expectations of prosperity, signalled by the end of Apartheid (J. and J. L. Comaroff 1999). Instead, we heard a cacophony of complaints about worsening conditions of life, crime, corruption and AIDS. For example, male unemployment had increased from 16 to 43 per cent.

On the basis of our observations of growing discontent, we predicted that South Africa's ruling party, the ANC (African National Congress), would fare worse in these elections than it had in 1999, when it gained 88 per cent of the vote in the Province.

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Doing Politics in Bushbuckridge: Work, Welfare and the South African Elections of 2004


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