One of the smaller parties to make ground in South Africa’s sixth democratic national and provincial elections is the Freedom Front Plus (VF+). The party is now the fifth biggest in parliament, with 2.38% of the national vote – up from 0.9% in 2014. It gained six more seats, bringing its number of MPs to 10. Though tiny compared with the three leading parties – the African National Congress (ANC), the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) – the VF+‘s gains nevertheless came as something of a surprise. Thabo Leshilo asked Keith Gottschalk and Dirk Kotze to explain.
What is the Freedom Front Plus (VF+) and its history?
Dirk Kotze: The Freedom Front Plus (VF+) was formed in March 1994 by General Constand Viljoen as a break-away group from the Afrikaner-Volksfront, which did not want to participate in South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994. He registered the party for the election after a concession was made to include self-determination as an additional Constitutional principle in the 1993 interim Constitution.
Before the 2004 general election the Freedom Front merged with the Conservative Party and Afrikaner-Eenheidsbeweging. In 2006 it merged with another conservative party, Louis Luyt’s Federal Alliance, to be renamed as the Freedom Front Plus.
In 1994 its main policy objective was to establish a volkstaat, or independent state. It received 2.2% of the popular vote. In 1999 this declined to 0.8% where it stayed in all subsequent elections until 2014.
In the 2019 election the VF+ returned to its 1994 support level, with 2.5% of the national vote. It did this by expanding firstly in the North West province to 4.4% of the provincial vote; in Gauteng to 3.8% of the provincial vote; and in the Free State to 4.1% of the total votes.
Keith Gottschalk: The VF+ has an orange, white and green emblem, which is evocative of the vierkleur flag of Paul Kruger’s South African Republic. From its start in 1994, the party represented those who felt former President FW de Klerk had betrayed the “Afrikaner volk” to black people, the ANC and the Communist Party.
It was in that year that General Constand Viljoen mobilised more than 20 000 armed Afrikaner militia members. He persuaded them to not launch a counter-revolutionary uprising, but instead to vote for Parliament.
His actions were to have wide repercussions. One was that parties negotiating the end of apartheid – in a process known as the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) – settled on a proportional representational electoral system to ensure that minorities – particularly white Afrikaners – would be represented in Parliament, provincial legislatures, and municipalities.
What does the party stand for?
Dirk Kotze: In 1994 the VF’s policy was centred around the ideal of a volkstaat, or an autonomous region within South Africa with a high level of community autonomy, especially cultural self-determination.
They often referred to the Belgian arrangement of cultural councils as a model to be considered. Over time, the volkstaat policy has become less prominent. Since the 2016 local government election it has been redefining itself as a party for minorities – and not only Afrikaans-speaking white people.
For this election it formed a partnership with Peter Marais’s Bruin Bemagtigingsbeweging (BBB) or “Coloured Empowerment Movement” and he was nominated as their Western Cape Premier candidate. (Racial classification was the foundation of all apartheid laws. It placed individuals in one of four groups: native, coloured, Asian or white. The “coloured” people were those of mixed European, African or Asian ancestry.)
In its election manifesto it promoted decentralisation of power and more government by communities. It is also vehemently opposed to black economic empowerment and employment equity in their current form, and also land expropriation without compensation.
Keith Gottschalk: VF+ advocates founding an Afrikaner Council to represent the geographically dispersed Afrikaans-speakers in the country. It stands for Christian values and wants better law enforcement against farm murders. It ran on a campaign that included a promise to support
the white and coloured victims of affirmative action and Black economic empowerment.
Who are its supporters?
Dirk Kotze: The VF+’s biggest support base is in Gauteng. It has very little support in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. Most of its new supporters voted previously for the Democratic Alliance. The DA’s stance towards the decisions by the Universities of Pretoria and the North West about Afrikaans as a language of tuition is mentioned as an example of that party’s indifference to their interests.
Keith Gottschalk: In the 1999 election a majority of Afrikaner voters responded positively to Tony Leon’s use of slogan “fight back” in his election campaign. Leon was the leader of the liberal Democratic Party, which is now the Democratic Alliance. He had the ANC in his sights.
Echoing that battle cry, the VF+ used the slogan “Slaan terug” (which means “hit back” in Afrikaans) in these elections. Its target was the ANC’s policies of affirmative action.
What does its increasing popularity tell us about South Africa?
Dirk Kotze: It provides an insight into the complications within the DA and the transitional phase it is experiencing at the moment. It demonstrates the difficulty the party is having in balancing the interests of existing members with those of new members.
In the South African context these are not merely material or class interests. It’s also about interests and expectations as a result of historical circumstances and about new opportunities versus fears of being excluded from these opportunities.
In 1994 the VF+ received significant support at a time of uncertainty during the transition. The latest return to the same levels of support might be an indication of a similar sense of uncertainty about identity issues such as Afrikaans as a language, as well as race-related issues.
Some would argue that more references to the Equality Court over allegations of hate speech are indicators of a rise in identity politics in South Africa.
This election had 48 parties contesting for votes. Some were on the left with a socialist and radical focus while others were more economically and politically conservative. This meant that the three main parties (ANC, DA, EFF) had to occupy the centre of the spectrum. In turn this made more space for parties like the VF+.
Keith Gottschalk: The VF+’s biggest ever vote indicates that the DA is losing Afrikaner voters to its right. In addition, the VF+ appears to have attracted some coloured voters. The VF+’s constituency is overwhelmingly Afrikaner white Protestants. But, on this occasion, it appears to have made inroads among coloured conservatives by winning rural coloured votes in the Western and Northern Cape.
The VF+ held up in its voting strongholds which include Afrikaner suburbs in Gauteng and North-West Provinces in particular. And it naturally won overwhelmingly in Orania, an Afrikaans-speakers only town in the Northern Cape.
Voters who backed the VF+ came from both the main opposition parties, in particular the DA, but also the ANC. The ANC lost a host of coloured voters in the wake of an acrimonious labour dispute at some state departments, including the prison services.
ANC-appointed managers implemented a version of affirmative action that limited coloureds to one out of 11 jobs and one out of 11 promotions. The coloured prison warders felt betrayed by the ANC government, and by their pro-ANC trade union, Popcru.
It was the Afrikaner-dominated trade union Solitariteit – backed by the VF+ – that won a test case on behalf of the coloured warders.
* Keith Gottschalk is a Political Scientist at the University of the Western Cape and Dirk Kotze is Professor in Political Science at the University of South Africa.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.