David Saks
David Saks

Voter docility, racial resentment strangling SA democracy

With less than a week to go, the result of the US presidential election is too close to call. In the case of South Africa, you would have to go back all the way to the early 1950s to say the same thing. Ever since then, the results of elections in this country have been a foregone conclusion long before polling day.

Already in serious disarray in 2009, the ANC has continued its precipitous nosedive in the Zuma era. This year, the crisis in governance has escalated at an extraordinary rate, with the Limpopo textbook fiasco, the Marikana disaster, labour unrest in general and the downgrading of South Africa’s international credit rating being just a few indications of how much the current administration has lost the plot. Reckless expenditure, endemic and increasingly open corruption, misuse of public funds for partisan political activities, disastrous maladministration that has seen one province collapse into outright bankruptcy while others teeter on the brink — sub-Saharan Africa has seen it all before, and knows only too well where it leads to. Throw into the mix racially-based discrimination against racial minorities, menacing government moves to limit basic democratic freedoms and turning the legal system into a farce by releasing politically connected felons on “health” grounds, and one realises how far things have been allowed to deteriorate. Many African countries now seem to be finally emerging from their post-colonial chaos and are showing real signs of making a go of it as world economic players. Ironically, South Africa threatens to go in the opposite direction, lurching ever further towards basket-case status.

In any normal Western democracy, no government with so disastrous a record of failure would have the slightest chance of re-election. Indeed, such an administration would have been thrown out of office long before matters had reached such a stage of disintegration. The result of the next election, in other words, would be a foregone conclusion. Those in power would already be putting out feelers regarding alternative employment while members of the opposition would be licking their chops over the imminent division of the spoils of office.

The results of South Africa’s next national election are also a foregone conclusion, only with the opposite result. Despite the ANC’s continuing implosion, it is still set to obtain more votes – a good deal more, in fact – than all the opposition parties combined.

How is this to be explained? It is not the result of the media being so muzzled that the electorate is left largely unaware of the extent of government mismanagement and venality. While national television is clearly under the government’s sway, the print and electronic media has been a consistently robust voice in exposing this. Intimidation of opposition parties does play a role, yet essentially South Africa’s elections up until now have passed the “free and fair” test.

One major reason for their being no credible challenger to the ANC is the failure of any of the other mainly black-supported parties to establish their credentials. In 1994, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) gained about 11% of the vote, but it never succeeded in extending its support to any real extent outside of its KwaZulu-Natal base and even there went into steady decline. Bantu Holomisa’s United Democratic Movement began well with 14 seats and over half a million votes in its first outing in 1999; a decade later, it was down to less than a third of this, and like the IFP, it never made much of an impact outside its provincial (Eastern Cape) base. Perhaps the biggest let-down was provided by Cope, which gained 30 seats in 2009 and then rapidly imploded. Phillip Dexter, the latest high-profile member to jump ship, commented that the party had “descended into an unparalleled chaos of infighting, factionalism, maladministration and even corruption”. In the 2011 municipal elections, it managed only 2% of the vote. By 2014 it might not be around at all.

While the Democratic Alliance (DA) does provide the electorate with a credible alternative government, the race factor remains, for the time being at least, an insurmountable barrier. Slowly the party is making inroads into the black electorate, at least in urban areas but its image as the party of white interests is still too strong to persuade most black voters to switch allegiances in its favour. Perhaps doing so is seen as being somehow an admission by blacks themselves that they cannot “hack it” and need to ask the white baas to tell them what to do once more. The DA will never advance much beyond the 20% or so of the electorate’s support it currently holds if it cannot change that perception.

Ultimately railing against the shortcomings of elected leaders without doing anything about it is futile if it is not followed up with practical action. What is the use of shaking one’s head and going “aish!” only to meekly queue up at election time to request more of the same for another five years? Fear-driven whites voted in consistently large numbers for the party that promised to keep them in, and blacks out, of power. Nearly 20 years have passed since that power was irrevocably transferred to the population as a whole but the legacy of the apartheid continues to have a paralysing effect on our political culture.

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