A Time for Optimism not Cynicism

South Africa - Pretoria - 18 March 2019. Members of the ANC outside the Pretoria train station during an election campaign ahead of the May 8 national elections 2019. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi/African News Agency(ANA)

Democracy was once described as the worst imaginable form of government – except for all the others. It is complicated and at times messy – just ask Theresa May! But it beats despotism or anarchy, hands down.

An election campaign can get people’s dander up. Like throwing chairs at one another at a debate last week. That kind of behaviour got the contempt that it deserves from the media. It is un-democratic to get so steamed up. Majority rule was and is meant to achieve policies that MOST people support. Not that a vanguard of ideologues support. No party in the majority of public opinion should have to throw chairs at any other to win a debate.

It takes a good measure of Optimism to survive an election campaign. You really have to believe that Democracy rocks. Cynicism is the enemy of an election campaign. It could even cause people to boycott, refusing to cast their vote. It is every voter’s civic duty to participate – in a Secret Vote. Votes are cast in a private booth for a very good reason. It is an intimate moment – like a confession booth in the church.

One way that voters can democratically express their disgust is to spoil their ballot. This is not un-democratic. It sends a legitimate message to the vote count – that some voters see no real choice on the ballot. It is far better to line up and then spoil your ballot, than just to be a “no show”. Another aspect is that one party still dominates. It seems like there is no choice, because the same old party always wins.

This is especially frustrating for those who see it for what it is – a Patronage Party.  It keeps winning because it takes care of its supporters. And the corollary of that is that it punishes its opponents. This has been brought to light time and again by the testimony of witnesses at the various Commissions. So is there no realistic challenger in the 2019 elections? Is there no contender, or do we just go to our polling station like sheep to the slaughterhouse?

Ironically, there IS an unseen contender. “Unseen” because it does not appear on the ballot per se. The contender in 2019 is a Coalition of opposition parties, forming a coalition government to unseat the ruling party. If enough voters swing their vote to one or another opposition party, then the ANC could sink below the 50 percent threshold. That would cause one of two things to happen – either a Minority government or a Coalition government.

In a Minority government, the ANC would trundle on without a majority. It would look for support from another party to reach the 50% threshold on votes in parliament. This is the way that Theresa May has been operating in the UK since last year – depending on the DUP of Northern Ireland to stay in power. Or a Coalition could be formed that can muster more than 50 percent. In parliament, there are 400 seats. So 201 seats is enough for a Coalition to unseat the ANC. 51 percent of the vote on May 8th actually translates into 204 seats.

So as voters think through their personal, secret decision, voting for one of the 44 opposition parties is another option. You don’t have to spoil your ballot to express your disgust, although that is a democratic option that voters do have. If a life-time ANC member just cannot bring themselves to vote for their party again in the light of all the corruption and patronage that has come to light, but find it equally difficult to vote for another party, then they can spoil their ballot. This punishes the incumbent, by effectively shrinking the Electorate. It is like an abstention – leaving other voters to make the decision.

But that seems cynical, at a time – election season – when one must be optimistic about Democracy. Let it work. Let it do its thing. It IS the best. In an election campaign, parties start by launching their manifesto. As it is half over now, we have come to see the different colours. The IFP is calling for the death penalty back; COPE is championing the deployment of independent candidates and constituency seats so that parliament is not populated with merely patronage appointments; the DA wants to scale down the Cabinet to 15 seats; the EFF wants to launch a State Bank; the ANC wants jail time for those exposed for corruption (or does it, really?).

But they all say that they are in it to win.  So they are all silent about the prospect of a Coalition. Enter the election polls. The IRR and Ipsos, for example, tell an interesting tale. For example, that 12 percent of the Electorate at this stage will not vote for any of the “Big Three”. They will scatter their votes between the other 42 parties that registered.  (Twelve percent is 48 seats out of the 400 seats in parliament.)

The polls suggest that the ANC will still win more votes than any other party, followed by the DA, then the EFF. Exact percentages vary on this, but agree that 12 percent will not vote for any of the Big Three. In this, one can see a Coalition looming.  It is not on the ballot, but is IS on the cards. It is the unseen, unspoken challenger. In the second half of the election campaign, the Electorate deserves to hear from the opposition parties – a pledge to work together in a Clean Coalition. This would give the country a “clean break” (pun intended) from the ANC.

It would not only be a new government; it would be a new way of governing.  It will leave “vanguardism” behind and make the people govern, not the party. If you read the Constitution, it sounds like the National Assembly will rule. But in vanguardism, it is party structures that rule. Like the NEC or the Top Six. You never find those structures mentioned in the State Constitution, they belong to the ANC’s constitution.

Coalition government would take South Africa to a new level. Voters should not be doused with Cynicism about the difficulties of ruling by Coalition. They should be ignited with Optimism that Democracy can work its magic if it can only be freed from the clutches of a government that has failed the people on Jobs, Land and Integrity.  Why would voters return a government to office that continues to shed jobs, fiddle about land reform and marginalize its own internal Integrity Commission?

The best Integrity Commission of all is the Electorate. It is beginning to get a glimmer of the reality that there IS an alternative – a challenger – a contender in 2019.  It is not another party, it is a Clean Coalition.

Chuck Stephens is the Executive Director for the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership and writes in his personal capacity.