Towards rupture or stasis? An Analysis of the 1981 South African general election

Charney, Craig
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The results of the 1981 white general election in South Africa seemed paradoxical to many observers. After three decades in which white politics appeared dominated by the unchallengeable hegemony of the ruling National Party, white party politics seemed to have taken on a new turbulence and uncertainty. The Sunday Times reported, "Nat Voters Bolt to the Right", while the Transvaler headlined a "Leftwards swing". Very few seats actually changed hands, yet many commentators sensed that the election was a watershed. The confusing aspects of the election resulted from the play of contradictory political and social forces. This paper contends that the old ethnic-based class alliances which formed the basis of the white South African party system are unravelling. Though power did not change hands, the 1981 election traced the outline of a possible class realignment of white political forces, with potentially far-reaching consequences. In the aftermath, nothing seemed to have changed, but nothing would ever be quite the same. To illuminate the changes underway, we will begin with a discussion of the background to the election, then skip ahead to consider the patterns of change evident in the election results. This is followed by an examination of survey data to discern the emerging class division, and of how the strategy of the parties promoted or retarded its expression. The paper concludes with the implications of the new trends in the white electorate for the future of white politics in South Africa.
African Studies Seminar series. Paper presented 24 August, 1981.
Elections. South Africa, South Africa. Politics and government