South Africa

OP-ED

Writing the 2019 election: Nobody is ready for it

South Africans queue to cast their votes on May 7, 2014 in Marikana, South Africa during the fifth democratic election in South Africa. Photo by Gallo Images / Foto24 / Theana Breugem

We cannot be sure who will be the winners and losers in the 2019 election. What we can try to establish is why people will actually vote for a particular political party. By doing this we can have a measure of the hope, fears, expectations, beliefs and values of South Africans.

Writing about elections during the hustings can be a treacherous exercise. At any time, facts may trade places with hopes, fears, impressions, perceptions, wishes and variations of untruths. The treacherous part is when we believe ourselves, or accept that everyone else is always telling the truth. And then there are opinions, absurdities and, of course, the spectacle….

Hard as it may seem to believe, writers are not unlike the citizen and the voter. Every one of us is expected to separate what we think will happen, what we want should happen, and what will probably happen. Only the grandest of delusions, and unashamed self-deceit, would provoke statements suggesting it is a “scientific inevitability” that a particular party would win an election. Unless you’re a propagandist, a pamphleteer or a distinguished professor in the business of brainwashing students – and getting paid for it – you err on the side of caution and humility. You accept that sometimes it is better to say: I don’t know.

So… South Africa will hold its next democratic election next year. Unless Parliament in dissolved, and an early poll is called, which is hard to believe, the election will probably be held around 27 April. It is not inconceivable for Parliament to be dissolved. A constitutional authority consulted on the matter explained that an early election could only happen if the National Assembly reached such a decision and passed a motion to that effect. The President would, then, formally dissolve the NA, and an early election will be held. For now, barring a catastrophic disaster, the election will probably be held around Freedom Day 2019.

What seems clear, at the time of writing, is that neither one of the three main parties is ready for an election. Each of the three biggest parties, the ANC, the DA and the EFF, and the media itself is struggling with the crisis of democracy. Let us deal with the media, forgetting for the moment that individual writers love predicting winners, and rarely get it right.

As a “fourth estate” to help provide checks and balances against corruption and excessive state power, the press cannot and should not be absolved of getting things horribly wrong. We cannot be sure which version is true, or which more closely resembles the truth, but the recent controversy around reportage around “rogue” units in South African Revenue Service and the South African Police Service is cause for deep introspection. Of greater concern are the rise and fall of media outlets that are loyal to, or at least umbilically tied to the ruling party, and the slow train-wreck that is the public broadcaster. To the extent that it is a unanimous and completely independent block, the press is insufficiently protected from this crisis of democracy. This is a topic for another day.

As for political parties, it is fair to say that if an election were to be held at the end of October, the ANC would have the most to lose. The organisation is in a shocking state. Having secured leadership of the ruling party only narrowly at Nasrec in 2017, Cyril Ramaphosa, took over a party that looked like a stereotypical minibus taxi. Parts of the vehicle are falling off; old dents and scrapes have not been repaired; missing windows are replaced by cling wrap, secured by packing tape; turn signals and brake lights are not working; exhaust fumes below noxiously; passengers are sat on top of one another while gqom is slowly destroying their eardrums (everyone is too scared to ask the driver to turn the volume down); the driver has a pocket full of change, and a wad of bills in his back pocket; none of the rules of civility, or of the road, are adhered to, and battles are raging over rates and routes. The previous driver had received one too many tickets for dangerous driving, and the new driver wants only to keep the vehicle the road, swell numbers of passengers before time and the vehicle come to a crashing halt.

In some ways, for Ramaphosa, the election cannot come soon enough, but in other ways, he needs time to repair the damage done over 10 years – and make the ANC more respectable so people would vote for them, again. The ANC are, nonetheless, the most experienced in governance.

If we ignore the spectacle, the EFF are in greater trouble than they would have everyone believe. It’s hard to know where to start. Let me take a shot. The EFF have a gender problem, and their leaders have been accused of misogyny, and of physical violence against women.

About the gender problem, and at the level of perception, in almost every press briefing or public appearance of the EFF, male leaders have been most prominent. Other than actual EFF party members, how many ordinary citizens are able (at first take) to see beyond Julius Malema, Floyd Shivambu, Dali Mpofu or Mbuyiseni Ndlozi? If we look really hard we may see Godrich Gardee. Look harder, still, and we may see one woman whom nobody can name.

Compare this with, say, the DA whose most prominent members include Phumzile van Damme, Helen Zille, Patricia de Lille and Gwen Ngwenya. Compare this also with the ANC who have Nkosazana Zuma, Bathabile Dhlamini, Lindiwe Sisulu, Lindiwe Zule, Baleka Mbete, Nomvula Mokonyana and the later Edna Molewa.

A greater problem of the EFF is their populism, constant threat of violence – and past record of intimidation, disruption, insulting and abusing journalist, gas-lighting and a crude ethno-nationalism – all of which seems driven by the politics of revenge. The impression of the EFF is that they are a violent, chauvinist, crypto-fascist organisation that sometimes resembles the 19th Century Narodniks, sometimes the fascists and dictatorships of the 20th Century (from Benito Mussolini to Juan Peron) showing powerful parallels with contemporary fascists like Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines or Viktor Orban in Hungary.

There are also lingering questions about the ways in which the EFF leadership acquired their wealth. The EFF’s main defence seem to be deflection, by casting aspersions on others, on people like Pravin Gordhan, whom we suggested, in February 2016 , was in the cross-hairs of the most inscrutable fellows. The EFF are ideologically hard to pin down. Sometimes that is not a bad thing.

The DA, too, have an image problem. This problem has to do with two main things. One is the perception that it is dominated by white people, with lingering racist tendencies, and that it is liberal. In popular South African political parlance being liberal is an insult. In truth, there are more people in South Africa who are, actually, liberal than would care to admit it. The DA have also taken some terrible image blows, least of all are the tweets by its provincial leader, Helen Zille, the and the clouded departure of De Lille, as mayor of Cape Town. The DA have yet to make serious inroads into poor black communities, as a liberatory force that supports purposeful and direct interventions to pull the majority of South Africans out of poverty – other than through orthodoxy market forces.

Neither of the three major political parties seem ready for an election. At the last count, there are 13 political parties in Parliament. In the 2014 election the ANC won a majority of 249 seats, the DA got 89 and the EFF 25. The next largest party, by a long way, was the Inkatha Freedom Party with 10 seats. We cannot be sure who will be the winners and losers in next year’s election. What we can try to establish is why people will actually vote for a particular political party. By doing this we can have a measure of the hope, fears, expectations, beliefs and values of South Africans.

What we can say, if nobody already knows this, is that a healthy democracy functions at best when an electorate is knowledgeable, when citizens can make decisions based on the best, and most complete information that is available. This brings forward the issue of spectacle, and the decisions or choices of individual commentators or media outlets to focus on particular issues, carefully select facts, arrange them in a particular way, and then run with it, so to speak. DM

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