Our latest round of democratic elections to elect new municipal governments have been successfully concluded. Successfully so in that they were largely peaceful, free and fair and were conducted in accordance with our Constitution. For this the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), political parties and leaders, and South Africans in general deserve a big round of applause.
But at the same time the elections were less “successful” in that,
– a large number of people failed to register as voters;
– many registered voters didn’t bother to go and vote;
– those who did, turned established electoral trends and conventions upside down, creating new challenges;
– many areas delivered no clear or outright winners necessitating what may prove to be messy coalition governments unable to deliver;
– some incidents of violence and destruction did occur before and during the elections;
– young voters were absent in large numbers despite belonging to the largest population segment;
– protest actions took place over many issues even as voting continued; and
– with the election ink not even dry, hollow promises of serving and improving people’s lives quickly flew out the window as political parties and leaders started squabbling over the spoils in respect of forming coalitions that inevitably now must be formed.
Out of this election melee some serious questions arose in many quarters: should we be concerned? Is our democracy in danger? Are democratic elections dying? Where to now? Based just purely on the kinds of questions that arose and are now so feverishly being reported and debated in the media, it’s clear that these municipal elections represented something of a watershed or turning point. But just what does that refer to?
On the question of whether our democracy and elections are endangered, the comforting answer is no, or at least not yet. In fact, despite the anomalies, changing trends and shifting dynamics of this election, like each preceding election, it has in many ways further cemented and strengthened our democracy and the expression of the popular political will …at least for now. In this sense, our democracy continues to mature, and the democratic tradition is being further instilled in the collective social psyche.
But for this to continue and successfully navigate past a potential breakdown, a number of imperatives have to be addressed. The most significant ones being how to engage and involve the youth, reforming our electoral systems to be more directly representative and accountable, strengthening our political institutions, broadening constructive public debate on shared national goals with tolerance, compromise and consensus, and setting the bar higher for public office and performance. Just because we call ourselves a “democracy” does not mean these are simply givens – they have to be consciously created, defined, nurtured, grown and strengthened. All the time.
Nonetheless, these elections were also successful in the sense that voters could show and demand a change of direction. With regards to the ruling party, the electorate fired some serious warning shots across its bows; next time they will sink it if it doesn’t listen and deliver.
Political parties were able to form, register and participate without any or at worst minimal harassment. Voters could follow their conscience and vote for whomever they wanted to. Counting of votes was quick, efficient and without foul play. Much of our Bill of Rights was again resoundingly confirmed, including our equality and dignity, our personal freedom, our security, our freedom of belief and opinion, our freedom of expression, our freedom to assemble and demonstrate, the right of association, our political rights, and the freedom to make political choices of our own, and more.
Symbolically demonstrative of this spirit of democratic freedoms and choices was President Cyril Ramaphosa’s (long overdue) thanking of the media and its role (are you listening Donald Trump and company?). Without the 4th Estate the rest will arguably quickly come crumbling down. It is time wider recognition is given to this important fact. But with it comes a responsibility to effectively counter fake news and disinformation and the negative impacts of the reckless and unbridled impacts of social media. Achieving the latter without infringing on democratic freedoms is one of the big challenges of our time.
But yes, we should also be concerned. There are issues in serious need of being addressed, resolved or reformed, as pointed out above. A large part of this involves cleaning up governance and getting our politicians to deliver in alignment with popular expectations. And the entire process will have to find a voice and a promise that speaks to younger people. These are some of the major challenges going forward, especially in the context of local government and collapsed municipalities.
The trends we have been witnessing in relation to our electoral processes and public participation over the last number of elections are not unique. The same is being witnessed very much in many other countries around the world. The difference is that here at home these broad global trends are being shaped and informed by specific domestic dynamics, issues and problems. There are many, and many of these also have very localised, regional or specific interest-group content.
But in broad strokes they refer to eradicating corruption, growing investment and the economy, creating jobs, maintaining our towns, cities and services, providing adequate housing water and electricity, drastically reducing poverty and inequality, bringing crime down and creating safe environments, mitigating the already visible impacts of climate change, removing the scourges of racism, sexism and xenophobia, and getting South Africans to pull together in the same direction towards a shared goal of a more prosperous life for all.
So, with the ballot ink of the last elections still drying, how do we get there? Has there been any change, or will there be any change?
The best constitutions despite, no democracy is cast in indestructible stone. And they shouldn’t be. Neither are their electoral systems. Most mature and well-functioning democracies do embrace shared universal values, imperatives, and characteristics, but they also respond creatively to unique domestic or local requirements or new challenges that may arise. Change is an inevitable, inalienable part of any democratic dynamic, and change is indeed taking place in South Africa.
Two political spheres of action
Increasingly our democracy and political life has morphed into two major spheres of popular participation and expression – the formal and informal political spheres. At present the formal political sphere is shrinking as ever more disillusioned or dissatisfied people exit it, while the informal is growing as citizens apply other forms of democratic expression.
Both spheres currently represent legitimate and legal forms of democratic expression, protected and guided by the constitution, our Constitutional Court and the Chapter 9 watchdog institutions. This phenomenon may, depending on future circumstances, either further undermine or alter or strengthen our formal electoral system, and ultimately our democracy. In its present manifestation, however, while it does present challenges, it does not threaten our democracy, but left unchecked and with certain dynamics allowed to come into play in future, it could well do so.
Looking at our political trajectory since 1994 up until these elections as the most recent culminating point, it appears the political will of the people is expressed and exercised, with differing outcomes and consequences, in four distinct ways that now shape our political landscape in two spheres – the formal and informal.
1. Voting in regular democratic elections (in decline)
As political leadership floundered, institutions failed, corruption increased, and service delivery deteriorated, voters or those eligible to vote became increasingly disillusioned, choosing not to vote. From historical voter turnouts of around 77% in 2009, participation dropped in 2019 to a then historic low of just 65%, and now slumping to a record low of around 46% in the 2021 municipal elections. It’s a sad indictment of South Africa’s electoral politics.
Despite many promises of reforms, better quality candidates, and the lofty promises of parties and leaders in the run-up to the elections, there were no quality improvements. A whopping 323 political parties took part, some legitimately representing various constituencies and interests or with feasible agendas to try and improve things; but others merely in it for the spoils they could grab. Parties and politicians continued to fight and squabble, even killing each other, not for the privilege to serve, but for acquiring power, privilege, resources and personal gain. A cultural, moral revolution is desperately needed.
The loss of faith in political parties, systems and institutions adversely affected the established big parties and dramatically changed the political landscape. With large parties shrinking and smaller ones moving up the ladder, and with no clear winners in many instances, many
coalition governments now have to be formed. Historically these have been messy and riddled with power struggles, floor-crossings and deal-making that excludes the interests of those who voted for them, resulting in non-existent service delivery. Without proper reforms, this sphere is headed for further decline.
2. Apathy and the punitive stayaway vote (rising)
It’s hard to tell where apathy ends and a deliberate punitive stayaway starts, but both undeniably played a big role in these elections. Less than a third of eligible registered and unregistered voters – 12 million out of 42.6 million – bothered to vote on November 1. Over the years it’s been a gradual trend, but it’s now become a major characteristic of our elections that could bring the formal political sphere into further decline and further facilitate the growth of the informal political sector. Apathy means simply a “couldn’t be bothered” attitude; but the punitive stayaway vote is becoming an effective weapon as the ANC found out to its own grief. In the 1999 election about 89% of eligible voters were registered, dropping to 66% in 2019. For the 2021 elections only about two-thirds, or 26 million eligible voters out of about 40 million, were registered.
3. Popular protest actions, both peaceful and violent (escalating)
It’s long been clear that South Africans were increasingly turning to “voting with their feet”, or protest actions, to achieve what they could not do through the formal political system. Over the past decade or more citizens have increasingly protested over issues ranging from corruption and state capture to e-tolls, student fees, lack of housing, lack of service delivery and the pressing socio-economic conditions as seen in the July riots. Even as voters stood in line to vote on November 1, several protest actions over a variety of issues were taking place around the country. And Municipal IQ has again been reporting a rise in community protest actions over service delivery issues (which excludes protests over many other issues).
Karen Heese, Economist at Municipal IQ, said: “It seems likely that 2021 may buck the trend of subdued service delivery protests during local elections as we have seen in the past. This may be a function of political factionalism, but more than anything as a result of the severe socio-economic pressures, such as unemployment, against floundering municipal services.” This, it would seem, confirms the shift from the formal to informal political spheres of expression.
4. Sidestepping formal democratic processes and participating in voluntary citizens’ and civic organisations’ actions to replace absentee elected governments in delivering services (rising)
Finally, there are those who, regardless of whether they vote, stayaway, don’t register or participate in protest actions, are taking matters into their own hands and filling the void left by the many crumbling and collapsed municipalities. They are doing what those elected to office or appointed at high salaries and perks are failing to do. Clean-up operations, the filling of potholes on the streets, restoring water supply, fixing overflowing sewage systems, repairing infrastructure and buildings, are just some of the things that are regularly and increasingly undertaken by voluntary groups such as Solidarity, Afriforum, and various youth and township groups and organisations, often working together. This is government by the people for the people in the absence of government. And it may become the norm and could further facilitate the demise of electoral politics, at least at the local government level.
·Stef Terblanche is an independent Cape Town-based political analyst/consultant and journalist.