I recall a moment, effervescent with anxiety in 2016, as counted votes trickled in, painting a bleak picture for the ruling party in the Gauteng metros. An anxious reverberation of hope could be heard among politicians nervously looking at screens beaming results from the Electoral Commission of South Africa’s centres, as they waited for votes from the township. 

Everyone had hoped that these votes, historically known as strongholds of the ANC, would dramatically increase numbers to secure a majority vote. No one anticipated the political Armageddon that would catalyse the demise of dominance in the metros. 

After this harsh democratic lesson, leaders spoke about a much-needed path of self-reflection, introspection, self-correction, self-cleansing and whatever other self-therapy mechanisms the ANC could conjure.

In 2021, looking at an exhausted Jessie Duarte, deputy secretary general of the ANC, repeating the same words of the leaders in 2016 about how they have “heard” the cry of South Africans and how they will “reflect”, seemed as if the script had not changed — yet the lesson is now more severe.

The evident and glaring story about this election is that South Africans are no longer afraid to move on, with or without the ruling party. Whether this means voting for new parties or even using their abstinence from voting as a form of protest. No one disputes the democratic foundation that has been laid by the ANC. Even as it hurdles through its own crisis, the political genealogy of the likes of former ANC president OR Tambo and his generation are illustrated by the boisterous nature of South Africa’s democracy today.   

One of the positive aspects of the election outcomes is that democracy has matured. South Africans have used what is constitutionally at their disposal to reconfigure politics in the country and liberate themselves from party dominance. The current results also show that the inward-looking era of infighting, factions and lack of organisational centrality has had dire consequences for the ANC. 

The ramifications will be felt for many years to come, if the organisation still illusively believes that South Africans will wait in vain as they perennially park in the period of self- therapy.

A crisis and opportunity point has been presented by this year’s local government elections for the entire political dispensation. A crisis for the old, who always assumed that they have strongholds, has presented an opportunity for newcomers showing that it’s possible to fight political Goliaths in their own territories. 

The days of parading struggle credentials and invoking spirits of great men and women of the past are gone. South Africans are plunging deeper into a socioeconomic crisis. But this is also an opportunity for the old laager to reimagine their own organisations to speak to current voters, who want nothing to do with political rhetoric but vote purely based on their immediate socioeconomic conditions.

 Voting is emotive, it has nothing to do with ideology or well written manifestos. It’s a human survival decision. This statement is corroborated by the results from Kwazulu-Natal and Gauteng. It would be naïve to assume that the July unrest had no bearing in the current outcomes. Socioeconomic disparities characterising millions of lives precipitated what transpired in July.

South Africans want their country to survive and overcome political parties. The albatross of “we liberated you” has lost its noose and, if the current results and voting patterns are anything to go by, no party should dare say “Do it for Mandela” in their 2024 campaigns. Voters can no longer be held ransom by history.

Many have pessimistically argued against coalition governments based on the experiences over the past five years. But we ought to caution against this disingenuous scarecrow tactic. All parties in 2016 entered a new terrain with no past experiences; this is no different from entering a democratic dispensation with no blueprint in 1994. But look at where South Africa is now; vibrant and growing strong. Even if there is failure, we fail forward.

 Coalitions are a long-term reality and best be embraced sooner rather than later. Although race characterises our politics, it no longer stands as a barrier for progression or compromise. There’s a greater urgency and common ground among citizens to get things done and collectively take South Africa forward.

It is also consolatory and commendable to hear leaders from various old and new parties not only speak of their willingness to work with but also affirm their commitment to coalitions, citing suggestions of legal and legislative framework to manage coalitions. More and more political leaders are advocating for transparency from the onset to manage coalitions. This era might be the beginning of accountability and transparency that many South Africans have yearned for in local government.

Over the past years South Africans have witnessed the commercialising of a people-centred sphere of government through corruption and tenders. The outsourcing of many basic services has crippled the capacity of the state and at times compromised quality service delivery. The centrality of the state in addressing inequality remains pertinent, therefore its incapacity or erosion results in trust deficiency, compromising the social contract.

Trust from citizens is the construct for government planning and implementation. For the state to be truly developmental, it needs to have tighter state-society relations. Accountability can only be strengthened by coalitions. The effectiveness and longevity of any political party now will be determined by their ability to deliver. 

Another major advantage for citizens with this new political trajectory is that all parties will now have to take collective responsibility beyond council, they will be accountable and hands-on for the function, appointing officials and holding city managers and other accounting officers accountable. It will be difficult to conceal corruption or protect the corrupt.

Political parties will now be compelled to bring their best foot forward, meaning even candidates or officials who must represent them in government must be of impeccable administrative and moral discipline.

The era of entitlement has evaporated and the power to decide the future of this country has been sent back to its rightful owners — the people.

My parting shot to the revolutionary Luthuli House;  when Tambo, declared 1985 as the year of the cadre speaking of the “path we traversed” as “fraught with numerous dangers and hazards” in his 8 January statement, little did he know that in 2013 the next decade would also be themed the “decade of the cadre”, with the hope that this era would reignite the spirit of revolutionary discipline and commitment to the democratic project. 

With this decade ending in 2023, a year just before the next national elections, that distinct cadre will not exist if the qualitative refinement of cadres is not prioritised.

As the former general secretary of the communist party of Bulgaria, Georgi Dimitrov said: “To pay the subscription and have a membership card is only an expression of the will to become.”  

It’s no longer a numbers game, the best must lead

Maweqeqeshwe ama guerrilla!

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Gugu Ndima

Gugu Ndima is a social commentator and activist

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