Reflecting on the 2019 elections

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10/07/2016. Posters of various political parties mounted as part of their campaigs for the up coming local elections. Picture: Oupa Mokoena

It has been twenty-five years and my father still works here part-time. Here. At the electoral office. Every few years, interrupting the staff-room dramas of the frontlines of the education system, he works here. I remember the first elections. We lived in the township then. We would move to the suburbs a few months later. I remember helping him offload the truck and packing the garage with things he and my mom had hoarded since their days at the teacher training college in Mthatha. In there, he also kept a more recently collected possession. 

It was a poster with the familiar smile of Nelson Mandela and below it the words, “The People’s Choice”, written proudly. Even defiantly. Only in South Africa is “choice” an act of defiance. Only in a country where people for centuries had never been allowed to choose – where they lived, what they read, who they spoke to and loved – was the exercise of choice a defiant one. Only here.

I saw that poster again, this time last week. It had frayed at the edges and now competed for space with all of my other childhood memories in the garage: spokeless bicycle wheels, old broken lawn mowers, car batteries and metal tools rusting from disuse. At the centre of that cardboard poster, where the spilt oil hadn’t reached, I could still see Madiba’s smile. He looked younger than I remembered. More at ease. That poster, which I hear one can buy online, in many ways signifies us. Although our twenty-five-year journey cannot be bought online, we are faced with difficult “choices” as we were then. They may not be as defiant, but they are choices nonetheless.

Electoral campaigns are often an exercise in obscuring some of these “choices”, rather than making them visible. In 1994, unlike now, many of us, including Mosiuoa “Terror” Lekota, knew who the “people” were.1 The people who exercised their choice by choosing Mandela didn’t make that choice in a vacuum. They made it in a country whose entire foundation had been to deny them any and every choice. Now, as with Lekota’s amnesia about the “motive forces” of the revolution, what the old man stood for is often “forgotten” or overlooked. Now THAT is a political choice. Clearly, when choices are “difficult” and “contested”, it may be easier to retreat to rhetoric and selective memory. Where choice fails, “theatrics” replace debate. In many ways, this electoral season dished up theatrics as notable as the policy discussions and reflections they displaced.

Take, for instance, the debate on immigration. The “theatrics” and rhetoric about South Africa’s porous borders and the need to rein in the migration of undocumented immigrants is a typical example. Everyone would agree that any person in the country should be here “legally” and documented accordingly. Granted. However, that first premise takes on more ominous tones when given political “legs” and used to scapegoat poor immigrants from the Third World. When this is done, immigrants can be blamed for the weak governance and clinical outcomes of the public health system. The failure of the post-apartheid economy to absorb the “hewers of wood and drawers of water” that Bantu education miseducated can be displaced onto the Mozambican and Nigerian immigrant in the inner city. “They are taking our jobs,” is the rallying cry. “And our women.”

This structural reality – which is an outcome of a complex, centuries-long system of social engineering and structural disempowerment of black people – is placed squarely at the feet of poor African and Asian immigrants. Why? Because they are here. Living closer to our squalor than do the Eastern European immigrants in the east of Johannesburg or the Europeans who own property on Cape Town’s Atlantic seaboard. This is one example of the theatrical display that this “political” campaign season has been.

There are many others. From Julius Malema’s war of words with Tsonga musician and ANC politician Penny Penny (Giyani Kulani) through to Cyril Ramaphosa’s use of the “nine lost years” narrative to placate the ANC for “the good story” that Jacob Zuma told us five years ago.2 Read any publication at this time. Rather than policy debate, one finds a mix of polls, insults, scandal, stadium fill-up Olympics3 and smears. It is a pity that the international media has also joined the party by uncritically endorsing the Ramaphosa campaign while scathingly criticising his party. This narrative serves to dis-embed the leader from the party in order to continue the soap-opera characterisation of internal ANC politics as a battle between heroes and villains. The corrupted and the clean. The disruptors and the reformers. In so doing, many in the media, both locally and abroad, made their “choice” at the cost of obscuring the choices open to those who ate up their editorials and rants.

For many parties across the political spectrum, the political “choice” now is whether to “simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple”, as Indian scholar Arundhati Roy puts it, or to make electoral commitments and policy responsive to the objective reality. When people genuinely speak about “policy uncertainty” in South Africa, it reflects the aversion or reluctance to make difficult choices. Choices that are informed by real rather than imagined “trade-offs” have been absent from the key town-hall meetings, Twitter debates and late-night talk shows. On multiple matters.

The land debate, for instance, is one of the most contentious issues facing South Africans. However, we are yet to hear how our policy mix across multiple levels and departments is going to respond to this critical issue. What will our monetary policy look like if the land-reform programme (as the debate on title deeds suggests) prioritises debt as the means to access land? From a trade policy perspective, what protections (if any) will those who produce domestically or for export receive to cushion the value of their technological inputs while lowering the cost of what they produce and export? These questions force us to think of party manifestos, ideally, as self-reinforcing policy choices that seek to change the structural and lived realities of the most unequal society in the world.

The sixth parliament will emerge into an uncertain, volatile and polarised local and geopolitical context. Race and inequality remain tense bedfellows in South Africa. The immediate challenges of land and jobs will continue to require attention. Climate change will continue to wreak havoc in the region with recurrent cyclones, while floods in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape expose the spatial faultlines of our society.

The new government elected on 8 May 2019 will have to respond to this. It will also have to respond to the technological changes occurring in our world and ensure, as with renewable energy, South Africa’s “just transition” to a new digital world. In this regard, the rise of fake news and questions of sovereignty and control over our data present us with more important debates than how to keep people from moving across borders drawn with a pen in Berlin back in the nineteenth century.

Beyond introducing different political and policy choices in an electoral season, these present changes also suggest that – much like the 1960s, when Umkhonto weSizwe declared that the choice was to submit or fight – difficult choices are made not in five-year intervals at the voting booth. They are made in day-to-day life. In struggle for a better life. In the picket lines, community halls, classrooms, offices, on social-media timelines and in the streets.

Viewed in this way, the choice is not, like the Book of Isaiah and Cyril Ramaphosa suggest, God asking, “Whom shall I send and who will go for us?” It is who we send to the particular provincial, parliamentary and executive spheres of public life, fully aware that we do not do so to outsource the task of politics. To the contrary, it is to tactically choose how those politics will be played out in between the loud campaigns and endless promises. To make this daily choice in active pursuit of a better life, rather than to delegate it to one day every five years. This is the “choice” that makes the “X” meaningful, not as the sole expression of our democracy, but one that complements our daily lives.

Ayabonga Cawe is a Johannesburg based development economist, columnist, radio presenter, photographer and activist. He is Managing Director of Xesibe Holdings (Pty) Ltd, a platform involved in advisory, facilitation and content development across a wide range of fields.