Peter van der Merwe
Peter van der Merwe

Time to make good on the promise of democracy

Quick, what’s the difference between a catfish and a politician? The one is a slimy, predatory, bottom-feeding opportunist that would eat its own young. The other is a fish.

That’s the overwhelming feeling washing over South Africa’s battered middle-class as they watch the bizarre events unfolding ahead of next year’s elections. There’s a new logo for the DA, and the unseemly spectacle of the ANC rendering itself asunder – but not much promise of dramatic change.

Already, there are suspicions of skulduggery around the exact date of the elections. What do you do if you’ve got real opposition looming for the first time? Why, you bring forward the date of the poll, so they have even less time to prepare. Standard operating practice in the halls of power.

As anyone who has ever watched the television quiz show The Weakest Link will testify, democracy is not a particularly fair system. But it beats the hell out of the alternatives. Cynics would suggest that what South Africa has is a kleptocracy – a system in which politicians practice the transfer of money and power from the many to the few.

The ruling elite whiz along the country’s highways in cavalcades of luxury vehicles, guarded by besuited buffoons who pause only to shoot out the occasional tyre of some peasant who refuses to give way. Meanwhile, millions of the people who put them in power live in tin shacks and choke on wood smoke and body odour every day, waiting in vain for the better life that was promised them.

Still, if you have the vote, it’s a crime not to use it. Problem is, how? And that is the big dilemma facing your average middle-class person in the street right now.

For many, the ANC’s not really an option, for no other reason than it’s still never fully managed to make the transition from liberation strugglers to a real political party that needs to run a country. It’s been at the helm of government for a decade and a half, but all too often, the discourse remains at the level of “us and them”.

What’s more, it’s still run like a guerrilla warfare operation in many ways: dissenters aren’t quite taken out and shot anymore, but the fate of the unfortunate 40% who trimmed their sails the wrong way in Polokwane suggests that lively debate is not something that is encouraged within the hallowed halls of Luthuli House.

Hence the emergence of the Congress of the People, which has been born out of a common dislike of the Teflon Man of South African politics, Jacob Zuma. Exactly what else they stand for is not clear at this stage. At best, it will probably be ANC Lite, and if nothing else, will offer an alternative to those who want to cast a vote, but don’t want to give it to the ANC – the role played by the ill-fated UDM in previous elections.

The DA, that trusty refuge of the politically disenchanted from across the spectrum, is not a great option either. No amount of rebranding can hide the fact that it’s still seen as too lily-white in its make up, history and thinking to be really credible. Don’t take my word for it, though. Ask the millions of people who were so unconvinced by the DA in the last elections that they voted for the ANC anyway, in spite of a glaring lack of service delivery.

What about the IFP? Too regional and not much substance beneath the bluster of Buthelezi. The Independent Democrats? Too lightweight and not much substance beneath the opportunistic rhetoric of Patricia de Lille. The Freedom Front? Too niche. The rats and mice? Puh-lease.

So which party stands for which principles? Are there any politicians who care about the plight of the people? Small wonder the voters are distinctly underwhelmed. Here’s the bottom line: whoever you vote for, you’ll always end up with a politician. And that’s a sobering thought.