Suntosh Pillay
Suntosh Pillay

Voting is not enough: Beyond the ‘good story/bad story’ debate

It is easy to be an extremist. Taking a blind, one-sided, all-or-nothing viewpoint on an issue allows you to skip the nuance, texture, and blurry greyness of debates. South Africa’s “good story/bad story” debate has politicians locking horns as the extremities in political speeches now surface.

Poet Maya Angelou once mused that, “all great achievements require time” and Nelson Mandela cautioned that “it always seems impossible until it’s done”. In these emotional and heated times of electioneering, I feel like we need these sober truisms to remind us that freedom and democracy are processes, not events. They do not “happen”, they are “happening” all the time.

Power FM host Eusebius McKaiser noted “the boring ‘on balance’ truth of it is that there is much to be proud of, much to bemoan, much more to do”. So, what’s our story? Is it a good one or a bad one? Well, it depends where you’re standing, where you’ve been, where you’re heading, what you have, and what you’ve chosen to see, isn’t it?

The middle ground neither makes sensational headlines nor causes a panicked SABC to ban controversial adverts. A balanced analysis also tends not to go viral in cyberspace, and probably won’t amass a thousand retweets. Romanticising histories or vilifying future scenarios are intellectually lazy. But, those who tend to theorise issues without a solid opinion can be written off as undecided fence-sitters who can’t make up their minds, or armchair critics in ivory towers. In an information-saturated digital age of intensely conflicting data, research, news coverage and opinions, deciding on who’s right and what’s true is nearly impossible. Alas, or fortunately, the postmodern truth is that there isn’t one.

After all is said and done, we are alone with our own thoughts and feelings in the ballot box on election day. Pen in hand, we have to make a decision. There is no room for doubt or to add cautionary footnotes to our decision. Every vote is an unqualified yes. A “go ahead”, I agree with your policies and statements and leadership and ideology. There is no space for a qualitative caveat or explanation. There is no space for a “none of the above”, like in India. And there is no room to figure out why a voter did what they did, such as why 239 000 voters spoilt their ballots in the last election.

But when our fifth democratic parliament starts work again, the process of voting starts again. Standing in the booth is an evaluation of five years of vigilance, holding leaders accountable, and vigorous participation in the public sphere. Voting is the reflective pause in a cycle of active citizenry. It is both the start and the end of a process, one that loops infinitely and forever.

American computer scientist Alan Kay once quipped that “the best way to predict the future is to invent it”. Inventing the future we want means not getting sucked into rose-tinted narratives that the ANC would have us believe; or getting sucked into Afro-pessimistic narratives the DA and opposition parties would have us believe. This blind binary will get us nowhere. Our living room and around-the-braai conversations need to be more than a familiar moan and groan, more than a regurgitation of the dominant myopic media headlines, and more than a retreat into old-fashioned race-based explanations for everything. I believe our conversations need to become more solution-focused, filled with more stories of agency and resilience, and a bit braver — brave, in the sense that we are not afraid to speak truth to power, to protest incompetence and corruption, and to amplify our voice.

There is no good story and no bad story. There is only the multi-layered stories of how well we, the citizens, did our job of being the vanguard for social good, keeping alive the old cliché that the price of democracy and freedom is eternal vigilance.

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  • The weakness of the ANC
  • Part 6 of 6: Speeches
  • Part 5 of 6: Plenary
  • Part 4 of 6: Caucus
    • Kantoro

      Agreed – the reality is more nuanced. On the plus side – absolute poverty has decreased, services are available to most of the poor, and civil society and the remaining democratic institutions are surviving. On the minus side – the SA economy is performing way below potential, and key sectors like mining and manufacturing are battling. Global investors are steering clear of SA with the new Mining & Petroleum Act, and major miners are looking at selling or mechanising. Inflation is high, unemployment is high, growth is low. The major parastatals are asking for capital to the tune of 50bn Eskom, and SAA to be determined. The parastatals have also pushed high inflation into the economy – especially of transport and electricity. Despite all of these minuses, the people of SA, of all classes and races, have great potential – and I guess this is the final reason for optimism in an economy operating well below its potential.

    • Lindiwe

      This is the truth for the current debates but the further question for ‘non-aspiring politician’ who is a tax payer like me could be: are we doing enough as tax payers to keep quiet about what politicians (government & parliament) are doing to us?
      I believe it is time as tax payers to stand up for ourselves:
      1) Review our constitution that gives right to all of us but it looks like others have more powers than others (an animal farm situation) – why should government employees behave as if they are not responsible to us as tax-payers? Unions (govt) should consider this before they embark on strike and public service unions should consider the inconvenience they give to us if we need to get where we are going which has nothing to do with their strike.
      2) Why should constitution allow all failures from political leadership be allowed to form their own parties every time close to elections to get comfort of being parliament opposition who is still paid from tax payer. Look at mostly formed parties, they have leaders from existing parties but ‘left’ due to their unsuccessful leading parties.
      3) With current unstable global economy, why should we have deputy ministers who only speak on the day of appointment & have no value instead of having operational heads responsible under performance review. There are too many ‘privileges’ that come with ministerial title on tax payers.
      Finally, it clearly shows that we are all ready for CODESA 2 with Vision 2050!!

    • Charlotte

      There is so much in that word ‘integrity’: commitment, honesty, ability, principles, trust, responsibility, accountability, dedication, dependability, hard work …

      The biggest opposition party, the DA, as well as a host of smaller opposition parties with good track records and leaders with integrity and commitment, are ironically the ones who follow in Nelson Mandela’s footsteps – with his vision of a non-racist, equal opportunity society working together to build and realise the potential that this country holds for all.

      Conversely, the present ANC who were handed the country on a plate, have strayed radically from its core values – not to mention protecting a president with hundreds of unresolved charges of corruption against him – from the Arms Deal, the Guptas to Nkandla.

      Displaying a contempt for doing the right thing and doing their job, they hold themselves above the law. They disregard the public prosecutor as well as citizens, while the country continues to slide into an abyss of neglect, non-performance and non-delivery. (Still no text books in Limpopo? Again into the second term!)

      Voters who still fall for the ‘loyalty to the party’ ploy, should remember it was Nelson Mandela who said: “Let your politicians know you are watching every step they take.”

      The prevention of our tax being misspent and stolen; and freeing ourselves from the ineptitude and contempt of a corrupt government, now lies in our hands.

    • Yaj

      We need electoral reform to a constituency-based system or a hybrid as proposed by the late Frederick Van Zyl Slabbert to ensure accountablity of elected representatives .

      We do need a an economic CODESA II and factor in the phemonena of peak cheap oil and peak credit.
      We also need serious banking and monetary reform with and end to fractional reserve banking.
      See Martin Wolf’s article in the Financial Times (UK) “Strip the private banks of the power to create money”.

      Vote Ubuntu Party.

      And check out

    • Rory Short

      Good governance is just that. Is the current government providing good governance? No it is not. Therefore they should be replaced by others who will hopefully perform better.

    • Silo

      A well thought and penned article. Building from your last sentence which suggests that we need to remain the “venguard of social good”. It has been proven over time that the weakness of any society is when they overrate and/or give too much respect to their governement officials, if not just being blind loyalists. However, criticism should always be backed up with some sort of evidence and proper rattionale than on any other creed, which in my view, our political dispensation to date has been highly characterised by popularities and tribalism at the expense of sober economic, social, good governance. Notwithstanding that, our democracy is been alive and still needs to be protected while sharpening it.