A view from below

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Voters queue to cast their ballots in the elections of 2004.

In the weeks leading up to South Africa’s sixth national general elections, parts of the country were in flames. For its citizens, it felt like a country crumbling on the foundations of its democratic dreams.

In Durban, the African National Congress (ANC) mayor’s extension of her patronage network by appointing unqualified people onto the municipality’s payroll caused workers to storm the streets, setting fire to uncollected rubbish and blockading roads. They had had enough of the increasingly ubiquitous nepotism used by the governing party’s politicians to shore up regional power-bases and pillage state resources for the self-enrichment of factions within.

Alexandra, the squalid Johannesburg township nestled next to plush Sandton, which boasts some of the most expensive real estate on the continent, was shut down by protesting residents. They were angry at increased crime and the lack of public policing, the state’s failure to provide promised renewal and development, and the apartheid impoverishment in which they have continued to live since 1994. They barricaded the streets with such resolve that the South African Human Rights Commission set up a public inquiry to investigate whether residents’ human rights had been infringed by the state’s inadequacies and failures.

There were also protests in other cities, towns and provinces, as well as threats to disrupt voting and calls for stayaways from the polls. Voters knew the palpable reality of rolling electricity cut-offs, of sewage flowing freely into Gauteng’s tap-water sources, while communities in other provinces went weeks without water and without any attention or intervention from their municipalities.

This all coincided with an apocalyptic sense of a failing state. The judicial commissions investigating “state capture” heard daily revelations of billions of rands being siphoned from the national treasury through state-owned enterprises by kleptocrats linked to former president Jacob Zuma. These scandals were not limited to the ruling ANC, however. Leaders of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have also been linked to the pillaging of VBS Mutual, a small regional state-linked bank that collapsed after being relieved of its holdings by its own executives, directors and connected politicians.

South Africa increasingly appears as a country where the government – whether at national or local level – is on the brink of not working at all for its citizens. With every scandal, the electorate has become increasingly weary of an ANC-run state that, rather than promoting socio-economic development and the realisation of every citizen’s human potential, has inhibited or obstructed it.

In the 2019 elections, such disillusionment and disaffection were evident in both the ANC’s continued slide in support and the fall in voter participation. The ANC’s 57.51% of the national vote was 4.64% lower than 2014, and it has shed 12.18% since its highest vote count in 2004. According to Statistics South Africa and the Independent Electoral Commission, of the 35.86 million eligible voters in the country, only 26.75 million people (74.6%) were registered to vote. Another 9.1 million registered voters didn’t turn up at the polls, making 2019’s 65% voter turnout the lowest since the end of apartheid.

The Cost in KZN

The 2019 election saw the re-emergence of the Inkatha Freedom Party in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) province, its support growing from 10.86% in 2014 to 16.34%. The ANC’s 54.22%, a drop of almost 10% since 2014, suggests an electorate that has become disillusioned by the scandals affecting the party. Some ANC politicians and government officials have been implicated and charged in the political assassinations which have ravaged the province over the past decade, leaving over one hundred dead. Government dysfunction is writ large in KZN, where the Zuma project of kleptocracy, corruption, political gangsterism and murder appears to be in its final stages.

While Zuma’s backers are keen to suggest the drop in support for the ANC in the province is linked to the side-lining of the former president during the campaign, the reality is that voters are well aware of the worst aspects of his nine-year tenure made real in their lives, a period described as “wasted” by Zuma’s successor, Cyril Ramaphosa.

If Ramaphosa is unable to stem this kind of rot, which has set in across the country to varying degrees, the ANC is likely to see further losses in the 2021 local government elections.

Fading Non-racialism

Racial animosity and distrust also gained momentum during the election campaign, intensifying the sense that Nelson Mandela’s “Rainbow Nation” had frayed and faded as quickly as election posters on streetlamps. Racial polarisation has deepened around such issues as a proposed constitutional amendment to allow for land redistribution through expropriation without compensation (a concern for white South Africans, mainly) and the increasing socio-economic inequality experienced by the majority black population.

These issues, especially the need to redistribute land and the continuing impoverishment of black South Africans, were manipulated through populist demagoguery and anti-immigrant and anti-minority utterances by the EFF, which saw its electoral share grow from 6.35% in 2014 to 10.79% this year, ensuring 44 parliamentary seats for the party.

On the other side of the racial spectrum, the right-wing Freedom Front Plus (FF+) used populist scare-mongering around the land issue and the future role of whites in the country to grow its support from 0.9% in 2014 to 2.38% in 2019 (414 864 votes), giving it ten seats in the national parliament.

Despite the non-racial vision espoused by the Constitution, South Africans of all hues have become increasingly distrustful of each other. The election gains of the EFF, the FF+ and the Inkatha Freedom Party confirm a lurch towards social conservatism and neo-fascism in the country. This worrying trend will have an impact on any law-making undertaken by South Africa’s sixth parliament, raising temperatures around race, immigration, and the often emotional and reductive debates on land and economic transformation.

#IWantToVoteBut

The disillusionment with South Africa’s government was especially demonstrated by the youth response to the elections. There were 1.8-million eligible first-time voters between the ages of 18 and 19, yet only 341 186 of them registered to vote. This marked a steep 47% drop from 2014 when 646 313 young people had registered. Many urban youth took to social media with their disaffection, with #IWantToVoteBut trending on Twitter in the days before May 8.

This generation has experienced the government’s inability to provide quality education that would allow them to access jobs, dignity and careers. They see their parents’ continued suffering and do not believe that voting a government into power will provide a panacea for them. They are dismissive of the menial work of picking up trash or waving red flags at road construction sites, which seem to be the only “work opportunities” on offer in the ANC government’s trumpeted job-creating Extended Public Works Programme. Those jobs aside, around 3 million people under the age of thirty are unemployed in South Africa. An estimated 6 million of those under thirty did not vote.

Can the ANC Reform?

Cleaning up the ANC is the modern-day equivalent of taking a broom to the Aegean stables. With a reduced majority and a party at war with itself, President Cyril Ramaphosa will require a Herculean effort to institute a reformist agenda within his party with a view to win back voters to the ANC and to refurbish public confidence that government can work for its citizens.

The vote count had hardly been finalised before ANC leaders like secretary-general Ace Magashule and elections manager Fikile Mbalula were at each other’s throats. The scandal-ridden Magashule represents a faction within the ANC that still supports Zuma, having benefitted from his years of misrule and malfeasance, and is opposed to the reform supported by Ramaphosa’s faction. The exposure of corruption could also mean a loss of income, and possible jail time, for many people.

Magashule claimed that Ramaphosa’s popularity had not saved the party from haemorrhaging more votes – despite evidence to the contrary, including that non-traditional ANC voters had plunked for the party in the hope that its leader could carry out the internal reform required to weed out corruption. A comparison of national and provincial voting patterns does indicate that, while the party’s popularity is on the wane with its traditional voters, who either stayed away in exasperation or marked an X next to opposition parties like the EFF or DA, Ramaphosa himself remains popular, especially among middle-class South Africans.

To date, Ramaphosa has taken so soft an approach to those implicated in corruption scandals that he appears to be addressing the problem with a feather duster rather than a shovel. In 2018, he even retained some of them in his first cabinet, after the ANC national executive recalled Zuma from office. The list of premiers now being appointed to the various provinces suggests a continuing effort to minimise opposition within the ANC, while at the same time aggravating the structural political problem of conflating party and government positions. The consolidation of power by regional and provincial party bosses through patronage systems feeding off the state will continue.

All in all, the view from the ground of the 2019 elections does not bode well for South Africa’s constitutional vision of an equal, non-racial society where every person’s human potential can be fulfilled.


Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist.His areas of interest include citizen mobilisation and protest, state violence, constitutional law, social justice, arts and football.