163. Contrasting Realities of SA’s Electoral Democracy

Author: Vusi Gumbi
Date: 24 January 2022
Publication: IOL News
Image courtesy of: Marija Zaric via unsplash.com

South Africa – Africa’s most industrialised nation – is characterised by the juxtapositioning of “First World” and “Third World” realities, the latter illustrated by the fact that 75 per cent of the population (mostly black) still suffer the effects of 47 years of legally sanctioned racism and segregation. It has been 27 years since the “symbolic death” of apartheid, yet this repugnant policy still rears its ugly head. This, coupled with structural poverty and unemployment, exacerbated by political corruption, has led to a despondent citizenry. This is important to understanding the political and social context in which South Africans were called to the polls on Monday, 01 November 2021, to elect leaders and councils for all district, metropolitan and local communities in each of the nine provinces – the closest form of government to them. By the evening of election day, two things were clear: on the one hand, multiparty democracy was at its peak and, on the other, South Africans had lost confidence in the political climate of the country, its institutions and the idea of a social contract. These are the contrasting realities of South Africa’s electoral democracy.

The hopeful bunch
Only about 12 million of the 26 million registered voters in a 60 million population showed up to cast their ballots, actively playing a role in the political dynamics of the country. These are citizens who believe in the power of the ballot and understand that the best form of protest, or affirmation of leadership, is casting one’s vote. These are South Africans who believe in the notion of “my vote, my voice” – as expressed succinctly in the Independent Electoral Commission’s (IEC’s) electoral campaign – and that elections and their results are an extension and/or reflection of their dreams and aspirations.
These local elections were also the most widely contested elections since 1994. The IEC revealed that a record 325 political parties and nearly 95 000 candidates, including 1 500 independent candidates, had contested the municipal elections – showing that multiparty democracy is alive and well. This is also a reflection of how ordinary South Africans, members of community based organisations with little or no financial backing, decided to take advantage of the fact that standing for public office in the municipal elections does not require extensive financial resources – unlike the general elections. Thus vindicating the former Chief Justice, Mogoeng Mogoeng, who said, in 2019: “Does it [that is, a democratic system] continue to be so when you stand no chance of winning elections unless you are connected to the financially well-resourced?”

The despondent lot
All aspects of society should be included in political systems if they are to be representative of the broad demographics. When the electorate is disenfranchised or disengaged from political processes, a significant portion of the population has little or no say in decisions that affect their lives. The representativeness of the political system is weakened as a result.
The biggest voting bloc stayed away from the 2021 local elections – a protest that mirrored the frustration of the masses who are at the periphery. Low voter turnout is not apathy. The November polls reflected the polarised state of South Africa’s electorate, with the majority being the downtrodden, who are the most affected when corruption, mismanagement of funds and irregular expenditure rear their ugly heads.

The majority are those who do not feel they have a place in South Africa, who saw voting as a futile sham of a process and chose to abandon their universal suffrage for which many paid the ultimate price. These are South Africans who finally acknowledge that in 1994, the government changed but the social structure remained the same – and they accordingly rejected a system that has continued to subject them to degradation. Contrary to the views expressed by some spin doctors, linking the COVID-19 pandemic to the record low voter turnout, the truth is that the disengaged majority are at the crossroads, at a point of no return; they are now questioning the point of voting when they still have to make do with welfare crumbs while the strategic sectors of the economy remain in the hands of the minority, beneficiaries of colonialism and imperialism.

Political corruption, which has resulted in minimal service delivery, coupled with the realisation that political freedom has become meaningless because the social structure and economic dynamics have remained pretty much as they were prior to 1994, has led to the despondent lot.

An indictment of the opposition?
The ruling African National Congress (ANC), once hailed for leading South Africa’s liberation struggle, has now become a shadow of its former self – it now breeds corruption, lawlessness, and an entrenched system of patronage.

The strange phenomenon that is unfolding is that South Africa’s electorate, by staying away from the polls, are saying, “we would rather not vote than vote against the ANC”. This is odd considering that the winds of change have been blowing through Africa: in The Gambia, for instance, Yahya Jammeh lost the 2016 presidential elections to the opposition, Adama Barrow; and in the 2021 polls, Zambians voted for the opposition leader, Hakainde Hichilema.

Although the ANC reached a turning point, recording its worst electoral performance ever, the country’s main opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the third largest party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) failed to make inroads in the electoral map. The ANC still managed to glean more than double the number of the votes received by the DA. If people have lost faith in the ruling party, why are they not voting for the DA?

The question is, are South African opposition parties not good enough, in the eyes of the electorate? It seems that the majority do not believe that there is a viable alternative to the ANC. It is clear, therefore, that both the ruling ANC and the opposition parties need to work on themselves: the former to regain the trust of the people, and the latter to appeal to the “despondent lot”.

Vusi Gumbi is a Master’s candidate in Politics and a Research Assistant at the Institute of Pan African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg.