Undecided votes, defiance votes, spoilt votes, split votes – this is certainly an election with a difference with new dynamics and options to consider. It is also the first Mandela-less election in democratic South Africa, and possibly the last time liberation-era sentiment can be invoked as a major campaign factor. The ANC and its alliance are at a crossroads. After this election, race politics is likely to be replaced by class contestation for power. Change is coming, but not with the quixotic haze prophesied in the election adverts. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
George W. Bush was an awful president of the world’s most powerful nation. His warmongering (“This notion that the United States is getting ready to attack Iran is simply ridiculous. And having said that, all options are on the table”), his patent ignorance of international affairs (“We have a firm commitment to NATO, we are a part of NATO. We have a firm commitment to Europe. We are a part of Europe”), and his idiotic comments (see above, plus “It isn’t pollution that’s harming the environment. It’s the impurities in our air and water that are doing it”) created chaos and dumbed down politics.
But Bush won a second term as US President despite his appalling run in his first term. In fact, because of his opposition to same sex marriage, Bush captured the ultra-conservative vote and received a stronger mandate in 2004 than his ‘win’ four years earlier after a disputed count in Florida.
Election results do not always make sense, people do not always vote logically, and sometimes, the situation ends up being worse than it was before. Remarkably, it was not Bush’s idiocy and penchant for war that brought his presidency to its knees, but rather the devastation following Hurricane Katrina. He dropped to all-time low in the opinion polls and had to accept personal responsibility for the handling of the disaster, from which he never recovered.
South Africa does not have presidential elections but this certainly felt as if it was one. Much of the campaign period centred on President Jacob Zuma, his leadership and the scandals that plagued his first term. But there are also strong personalities in other parties which drew significant public attention – the new players Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema and Agang’s Mamphela Ramphele, as well Democratic Alliance Gauteng premier candidate Mmusi Maimane, deliberately thrust forward by his party.
This has not been the best election in terms of issues. Parties have generally flung out promises and pledges at will, without much public interrogation of these.
Despite South Africa’s economic policy uncertainty and jobs crisis, this was not front and centre of the campaign. The crisis in the mining industry is being falsely projected as a labour issue, when it is impacting on the economy and stability of the country. The unprecedented sequence of protests over service delivery was masked by an onslaught of advertising and propaganda with the coincidence of 20 years of democracy celebrations and the election campaign.
The focus on the upgrades on Zuma’s home at Nkandla has led to other major issues being relegated. Society is generally undisturbed by the fact that 21 months after the Marikana massacre, there is still no answers as to why South African citizens were killed by their police service and nobody has been held accountable for the slayings.
Despite the entrance of new players onto the political spectrum, disillusionment, particularly with the ruling party, has led to many traditionally ANC voters being undecided about who to vote for. This has manifest in new phenomena of defiance voting, for anyone but the ANC, a campaign to spoil ballots, due to disenchantment with the ANC but refusal to back any other party, and split votes, where people vote for different parties at national and provincial level.
None of these options are ideal; they are emotional choices and do not take into account the policies of the various parties. However, they are all part of the choices available in our democracy and are preferable to being disengaged from the electoral process.
This is likely the last election dominated by politicians who were in their heyday during the liberation struggle. The door has opened to the next generation of political leaders and modernised campaigning. Malema, for example, was still a child at the dawn of democracy and yet at 33, is now leading one of the biggest political forces in the country. It is not known yet how much of his campaign hype will translate into votes, and how sustainable his party will be, but in less than a year, the EFF has overshadowed decades- old parties and is the most aggressive force in the quest to unseat the 102-year-old ANC.
Continued disappointment with the ANC, the split in trade union federation Cosatu and the imminent creation of a workers’ movement by metalworkers’ union Numsa could dramatically change the configuration of South African politics in the next election. Numsa wants to draw the working class under a single umbrella, incorporating like-minded unions in Cosatu, other union federations, existing pro-worker political parties and civil society organisations engaged with the poor and working class.
This will mean that activity to the left of the ANC will be organised and formidable, and will no doubt shift South African politics towards class struggles rather than the legacy of racial oppression. The ANC will by all means try to prevent this from happening as not only does this threaten its mass constituency, but it also means that some of its liberation credentials will be usurped by the new movement.
But the situation might have already gone too far to pull it back. Numsa is already withholding support for the ANC in this election and is ramping up the pressure on Cosatu. On Tuesday, on the eve of the election, Numsa served court papers on Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini to convene a special national congress for the trade union federation.
The special congress will force the broad membership of Cosatu to consider a number of political issues, including whether the ANC government is best serving the interests of the working class.
South Africa has faced much turbulence on its streets over the past few years with protest action and strikes. If the working class shifts firmly in opposition to government and the ANC in the future, this means more heated confrontation over policy, government programmes, the cost of living and working conditions. All niceties and semblance of comradeship will be out of the window.
For now, however, we can enjoy the triumph of democracy still going strong after 20 years. From today South Africa is a grown-up democracy, finally unclasped from the glory days, the glow of our Mandela-ness finally fading.
Voting is a heavy responsibility; it defines us and our future. However, we should also enjoy the privilege, celebrate our nation of beauty and contradictions, and always strengthen our democracy. The final result might or might not be the best thing for our country, but we all have a role to play in this moment in time.
Our great nation needs you. Make your mark. DM
Photo: A women walks past election posters in Bekkersdal near Johannesburg, South Africa, 06 May 2014. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK
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