The silly political season is upon us. The political theatre is increasingly active, in anticipation of the local government elections planned for October 27th. Speculations on possible winners and losers are widespread, exerting pressure on politicians to play their game of chess prudently, and as it has always been in politics, visibly. Elections in South Africa are not publicly charged, relative to neighboring countries. The process leading to elections mainly occurs in the form of background deal making, snippets of mudslinging, and a lot of door-to-door campaigns. This approach is mainly prevalent within the governing party but clearly present in the opposition.
Given that local government elections are a referendum on political leaders under whose watch delivery of services has either progressed or regressed, these leaders scramble to persuade their constituents that they are worth another chance of leadership. For the most part, they make their case by all possible means, even if, as Dona Brazile observed, their methods involve disabling the public mind from thinking. Even so, elections provide the governed with an opportunity to exercise their democratic right to choose their leaders.
The faultiness underlying free and fair elections
South Africa’s election cycles have been reasonably peaceful and fair since 1994. Going by the common metrics (peace and fair), democratic consolidation in South Africa seems to be taking place. This is a commendable progress given the glaring examples of rogue states within the continent. But peace and fair elections is not all that the electorate looks for. It is therefore not an indictive of a perfect system. By the time observers close their records and declare elections as fair and free, a lot else has already taken place which neither concerns the observer, nor election watch dogs. I would like to consider the most obvious below.
First, South Africa’s political deal making seems to follow some aspects of social Darwinism, a theory which holds that human society is a function of what Herbert Spencer called ‘survival of the fittest’. In the context of politics, social Darwinists would conclude that weak politicians are edged out by the more strategic, strong politicians. Those unfit to compete become politically extinct. This methodology goes beyond competition among politicians. Perhaps more brutally, it suggests that leaders in society are brave and resilient enough to confront a range of issues -including rejection-which ordinary citizens do not have the courage to confront. In this line of thinking, politicians pass Herbert Spencer’s test of the toughest species among us. It is no wonder that politicians are not the most educated, or most intelligent, or most morally upright or most reliable among us. And yet they rise to the top of the power chain.
Recently, when president Ramaphosa testified to the Zondo commission, he admitted that the governing party has tended to employ unqualified party loyalists. The consequence has been a kleptocratic system, where those in power are more concerned with accumulating wealth for themselves through political power. Mr Ramaphosa went on to suggest that part of the ongoing renewal of the African National Congress (ANC) is to return to a form of meritocracy, where party members are given leadership positions on merit. They have to be party loyalists first, of course. The definition of free and fair election does not account for these dynamics.
Second, and emerging from above, most South African politicians employ Machiavellian approach in their quest for political power. Machiavellianism does not demand principles or moral convictions from political leaders or their opponents. Their insatiable lust for power motivates them to stand by whatever seems popular, even if controversial. Whatever gains public attention is considered good publicity. The problem with this political methodology is that it often employs highly charged rhetoric, with the objective of summoning emotional solidarity. Thus, South Africa’s original sin (racism) becomes a popular brand of politics during election cycles. Transformation and redistribution also become prominent themes in most campaign rallies as do Xenophobic utterances by which politicians seek to persuade voters that their economic traps are underpinned by the influx of foreigners. In just three months (between January and March 2021), the media reported at least three waves of xenophobic attacks. It is not coincidental that such attacks are most prevalent in KwaZulu Natal, which is also the province with the most charged party politics. In 2017, a report by the Global Initiative Against Organized Crime covering roughly two decades (2000-2017) ranked KwaZulu Natal as the leading province in political killings. Since 2015, over 90 political murders have taken place in the province. While the media does indict some of the politicians who charge political conflict, such indictment does not bear legitimacy unless it finds its way to the judicial system. And it often doesn’t find its way there.
These issues link to the third, which is runaway corruption. A lot of financial resources are needed to get into political power. A lot more is needed to keep power, and even more to return to power after an election cycle. Losing power is a means to an end, of which the end does often include possible prosecution for malpractices. Nothing so clears the mind or generates passion for more power than the idea of a prison cell. This is a universal challenge, not just a South African one. In 2016 for example, the Gambian President Yahya Jammeh who had promised to rule for a billion years surprised observers, opponents and the international community when he conceded to his opponent following the outcomes of presidential elections. When he learned of the musings of the newly elected leadership to prosecute him, over the atrocities committed under his leadership, he changed tune, claiming that the elections were unfair, and that he had won the elections.
Returning back to South Africa, the Inspector-General of Intelligence (IGI) provided a scathing account to the Zondo commission on how the State Security Agency (SSA) was looted in the interest of funding political factions within the governing party and in the interest of influencing the media. All this because elected officials have failed to do their work. To cover their failure, they have to maintain influence over resources. In so doing they accede to Benjamin Franklin’s conclusion that the two most influential tools in the affairs of men, as the love of power and the love of money. It is more toxic when both vices are concentrated on one individual, or even worse, a group of politicians.
Finally, the political season is characterised by a lot of lies. A lot of unrealistic promises are made, not so much because there is genuine concern to change society to the better, but because this is what voters like to hear. The lies manifest in more than one way. In South Africa, they include a lot of rhythm and out of rhythm dancing in public, kissing a lot of babies as a demonstration of connecting with people, for some shedding of tears, and for others eating in downtown restaurants. All these are attempts to show solidarity with ordinary citizens. Unfortunately most voters fall for these entertaining comicals, almost always.
The need for the electorate to uncover political masking
South Africa is trapped in the unenviable status as the protest capital of the world. If we consider the above patterns and how they play out, then during this year’s elections, it is judicious for the electorate to carefully examine the next choice of local government leadership in search for real freedom and fairness. When frustrations deriving from slow service delivery boil over, the roads, or buildings are not so much to blame. Neither are tyres, which face the fury of impatient voters. Moreover, these objects have very little bearing on how political leadership continues the task of service delivery. The problem lies in the masking of political promises and behaviour with exaggerated self-interests.
The recurrent cycles of protests suggests that the electorate does not discern the pattern of false promises and what seems like permanent feature of political masking in South Africa’s political landscape. While it is true that protests are democratic expressions, when they become a permanent feature of democracy, they reveal breakdown of democracy. Ideally, frustrations linked to delivery of services should be sufficiently addressed during elections. What this means is that the next cycle should be characterised by lesser service delivery protests. In the final analysis, a sustainable democracy involves an educated electorate, who demand from their leaders what the constitution mandates these leaders to do. And, when leaders seek to undo social cohesion, or undermine economic development by failing to implement policy, or insert themselves into corruption value chains, the electorate should indict these leaders on the ballot, regardless of how these leaders fight to survive, and notwithstanding their successful history of deal making. This is what free and fair election should really mean in the upcoming local government elections.
Dr. Jason Musyoka is a Senior Researcher with the University of Pretoria. He is also the CEO of The Frontline Group. He writes in his personal capacity.