The battle is on for the rural Coloured vote in the Western Cape in next year's local government elections, and this month's by-election in the small towns of Wolseley and Tulbagh showed it is likely to be a case of trench warfare, dirty local politics and no clear majorities.
The twin towns, about twenty kilometres apart at the foothills of the Witzenberg mountains, form ward 7 of the much contested Witzenberg municipality, which also includes the towns of Ceres, Prince Alfred Hamlet and the surrounding farms.
Only twice in the last fifty years did Wolseley and Tulbagh make the national news. On 29 September 1969, an earthquake hit the area, and three years ago Wolseley was a violent hot spot in the labour unrest which rocked the Cape winelands.
It is an isolated area where preferences and prejudices are strongly and bitterly held and where all politics is local and personal, because everybody knows everybody. The locals speak Afrikaans and Xhosa, with hardly an English-speaking voter to be seen.
Ward 7 has three polling stations: Tulbagh community hall, which serves some farms and the poor, non-picturesque and predominantly Coloured part of town, Wolseley Secondary School, which serves the established, predominantly Coloured township of Montana, and Wolseley Primary School, which serves some farms, the centre of town with its mix of middle-class Coloured and white voters, and the very poor neighbourhoods of Kluitjieskraal and Pine Valley, where very poor Coloured and black voters live.
Since 2000, ward 7 has variously been won by the DA and the ANC, but never by clear majorities. Last year, the polling station at Wolseley Primary, the largest in the ward, was one of very few in the country where the DA and ANC polled exactly the same number of votes, namely 673 each. This inconclusive result is mirrored in the 2011 municipal result, which left Witzenberg with a hung council. The DA won ten seats out of 22, the ANC eight, and four parties (including Cope and three local groupings) one each, providing a perfect recipe for unstable governance.
In last year's provincial election the result was even closer. The DA took 11 753 votes in Witzenberg to the ANC's 11 503. But on the national ballot, the ANC took 12 581 votes to the DA's 11 521, from the same sample of voters. Go figure.
No wonder the rural Western Cape Coloured voter remains a mystery to both DA and ANC pollsters.
It is just about the only identifiable group of voters who do not vote as a block in the Western Cape these days. Urban coloured and white voters support the DA en masse, as was proved again by this month's by-election in the racially mixed workers class Cape Town neighbourhoods of Southfield and Heathfield, which produced DA majority of 97%. At the same time, the ANC holds a vrtual monopoly on the black Western Cape vote - to such an extent that that the EFF could only gain one seat out of 42 in the provincial legislature during last year's general election.
In Wolseley and Tulbagh this month, this trend was clear in the way the small number of black and white voters were largely left alone, almost ignored at the polling stations, to vote for the ANC and DA respectively. The battle for Witzenberg ward 7 was strictly a Coloured affair.
Former Western Cape premier Ebrahim Rasool has always claimed the ANC fares better among rural Coloured voters because the tricameral parliament never succeeded in rolling out services in the rural areas to the extent it did in the urban centres, leaving rural voters less susceptible to the National Party message, which the ANC claims has been usurped by the DA.
To be fair, it was the ANC into which the Nat leadership merged in the end, but where their voters went is of course a different matter altogether.
The Wolseley and Tulbagh by-election had to be held because the ward seat became vacant when the sitting councillor’s membership from the DA was terminated. Behind that story drags a tale as long as all the others in this area, and the exact truth depends on who you believe. In short, despite his being a DA councillor, Pieter Heradien voted with the ANC and was expelled from the DA.
So Heradien put himself up as an independent candidate, dishing out his supporters in neon green T-shirts to contrast with the yellow of the ANC (represented by candidate Willem Kamfer) and the DA's Pat Daniels (decked out in the customary blue).
A Western Cape rural by-election is always a much noisier affair than anything up-country. Every major party has a lawaaibakkie (noise truck) spewing out songs (Klim op die DA se wa - Climb on the DA's wagon - versus the rather bland Ek is ANC - I am ANC, with a few catchy rhythmic ”Amandlas" to liven it up a bit).
At all three polling stations, some spirited verbal jousting (skellery, in Cape patois) was in full swing. One side accuses the other of hurling rocks at it, the other claims nepotsim and corruption, the third claims intimidation. The IEC's presiding officers just grin and bear it. They've seen it all before.
Twice in the day, scuffles broke out, providing the the bored police with a chance to earn their keep. No-one is seriously injured, but the language is colourful to say the least.
Voters are not keen to link their names to their opinion. "If you put on a blue (DA) T-shirt in this town, or a yellow (ANC) one, no-one ever forgets it. If you are quoted in the paper, it can be used against you," explains one voter. Her friend agrees. In a community where poverty is rife and work scarce, it is a compelling argument.
Anonymously, the reasons for whichever political loyalty are astoundingly similar, which makes it very tough to understand or call the result. "I vote ANC because I have always voted ANC," explains a lady. "I don't know why. It is in my heart and I am a child of the Lord."
Housing, the state of the local clinic, crime and unemployment are universally stated as the main issues, and the voters believe their party will deliver, but they are loath to discuss why . Personal animosity against the other party's candidate, family connections and the preference of neighbours contribute to the eventual choice. The race card was nowhere to be seen.
As the sun set after a scorcher of a day, those fortunate enough to have a job to return from, arrive to cast their votes. The din at the polling stations increases as the night falls.
At nine o'clock, the counting begins. The final result left Pat Daniels of the DA the winner by a whisker- 1 088 votes to the ANC's 981 and Heradien's 239 - another inconclusive result from the ever elusive coloured rural vote which will be up for grabs in next year's local government elections.
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