2021: South Africa’s second-last elections
Enjoy ‘em while you can.
Like a corpse tethered by battery chargers to a failing coal plant, South Africans lurch toward the 2021 municipal elections powered by nothing more than impulse. Democracy, if that is indeed a real word, has been hollowed out by over a decade of state-sponsored mega violence, self-imposed austerity, weapons-grade incompetence, craven corruption and Carl Niehaus.
The country’s political elites, led in fact and spirit by a supernaturally blithe Cyril Ramaphosa, assume that all they need to do is improve—enhance their performance, deliver on a small portion of their responsibilities, “eliminate corruption”. What they fail to realize is that, as a class, they will soon join the zombie hordes grovelling for the scraps flung at their feet by Julius Malema.
That said, while these are the second-last elections, we will almost certainly enact election cycle pageantry during whatever version of illiberalism South Africa innovates in the next decade or so. It’s just that the elections of the future won’t matter at all—they’ll be show trials for lousy ideas crafted by an increasingly inept array of second-rate autocrats.
This is, of course, not a polite observation in a country where thousands died for the right to vote. But context is important, and in this case, the context is not kind.
After all, these elections take place in the shadow of a gangster insurrection that tore apart two provinces over the course of July. The drama was ostensibly sparked by the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma for contempt of court—happily, he is now enjoying “medical parole” due to what appears to be a nudge-nudge wink-wink arrangement between the former National Commissioner of Correctional Services, Arthur Fraser, and President Ramaphosa.
They take place following the assassination of whistleblower Babita Deokaran, who appears to have been murdered for her role in exposing Covid-19 tender corruption in Gauteng. The looting, South Africa’s version of a 4IR initiative, has likely leached at least R15-billion from the fiscus. Meanwhile, one of Deokaran’s suspected murderers sits in jail drawing a salary from the KZN provincial government. This, if you were wondering, is the essence of a gangster state—taxpaying citizens keep their own assassins on retainer.
These elections take place in the uncanny valley between third and fourth Covid waves, in an economy smashed by the interminable lockdowns that have visited brutality on poorer South Africans without any commensurately humane social assistance. (We’ll leave the pathetic R350 grant unmentioned.)
They take place in the dark, as the power grid fails around us, while almost every single state-owned enterprise makes the likes of Facebook look like a well-run, benevolent orphanage.
They take place as the governing ANC explodes into a bloody mist before our eyes, with the slowest-acting president in the party’s history flailing away at some cases of corruption while energetically scrunching up his eyes so he can’t see how the employees in his own office are stealing pencils and siphoning the fuel out of his VIP BMW retinue.
More importantly, they take place in a denuded political marketplace, where the Democratic Alliance is reduced to aping the American culture wars; the Economic Freedom Fighters are nothing more than a racketeering outfit masquerading as a political party; and Herman Mashaba can’t fill out a form on time, although he can spew xenophobic rhetoric like the Trump-lite he aspires to be. (His party, the conservative ActionSA, are looking to be a smash hit in these elections.)
Trust in the elite ruling class has evaporated—vaccination hesitancy is just the latest indication that even super-tame middle- and upper-class South Africans are no longer so compliant, even when compliancy serves their own interests. Academic and political discourse mimics the American left/right dialectic, except without the urgency or ten-dollar-a-word opinion pieces. Public life is littered with men and women so stupid, and so mendacious, that the mean national IQ has dropped below zero: Iqbal Surve; Gwede Mantashe; Fikile Mbalula; Dali Mpofu; the ingrate Zuma twins; Helen Zille, and this is to name only a few, all of whom are trailed by decrepit ass-creeping troll armies who create their own imbecile vortex, debasing anything that remains of the exuberant discourse that followed the democratic transition some decades ago.
South Africa is an idiocracy in both theory and praxis: the substance of our politics is now reduced down to a screaming match between white and African supremacists, each accusing the other of being the “real racist”. Meanwhile, the race-baiting continues in order to cast about for tiny margins—for instance the DA’s “you’re the real heroes” poster campaign in KZN; or the Patriotic Alliance’s coloured grievance politicking in Gauteng and the Western Cape.
As intellectual capacity evaporates, so too does the rule of law. The political class as a whole now endorses “paramilitary populism”, to borrow a recently-employed phrase from the political analyst Benjamin Fogel. All hail the brave gun-toting heroes protecting their neighbourhoods during what are sure to become frequent insurrectionary outbursts.
(Think of these episodes as “rule shedding”.)
This Rambo guff is hardly surprising in a country in which the police are simultaneously brutal, incompetent and viciously corrupt.
@EFFSouthAfrica fighters… it’s many of us and few of them @dailymaverick @News24 @SundayTimesZA @ewnupdates etc. This smear compaigning & deliberate image tarnishing of our leaders must stop! We need to act to safeguard our revolution Manje! Fighters, ATTACK!
— Tshepiso Precious Kgawane (@KgawanePrecious) October 28, 2021
But paramilitary populism can only descend into ethnic or racial warfare, largely because there are so few mixed neighbourhoods in South Africa. (The Group Areas Act lives on, except it’s now more efficiently administered by the banks and private development companies.) And so Death Wish porn is exalted by everyone from Ramaphosa—who valourised such behaviour in a speech following the insurrection—to his counterparts in many opposition parties, all of whom are happy to sop up all the ethno/racial gravy for a few votes here and there.
Town & Country
Can this tide be stemmed?
That’s an interesting question.
These second-last elections are, of course, local and not national elections. South Africa’s 256 municipalities and eight metros are—and I mean this literally—the greatest fuck up in the entire history of humankind.
There have been functioning cities in Africa for millennia. Not here there aren’t. Our metros and towns are the focal point of petty rent-seeking, where either the rot begins or the rot ends, it’s not ontologically clear which. Entire swathes of this country are without meaningful infrastructure—there are municipalities that will require ground-up rebuilding to arrive at the 21st century from the Middle Ages. The “best governed metro in South Africa”, Cape Town, is nonetheless perfectly representative of democracy’s failures, if in a different tenor: through a combination of national, provincial and municipal cruelty and violence, the town is paradise for a minority of its inhabitants, and hell for those on the other side of the mountain—apartheid rebooted for a new era.
Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay, the country’s remaining big metros, were in 2016 subjected to coalition governments—astonishingly, this resulted in more dysfunction than the ANC could have generated on its own. The onset of this “coalition era”, followed 18 months later by the ousting of Zuma, brought profound changes to the major opposition parties.
The EFF, kingmakers in Johannesburg and Tshwane, exchanged their support for big-money tenders, becoming a hungrier and meaner version of the ANC’s RET faction, with which they are aligned in theft and spirit. The DA, divided between white and black caucuses, imploded on itself around questions of racial inclusion and affirmative action, while bungling coalitions in NMB, Johannesburg and Tshwane due to arrogance, inexperience and magical thinking. The IFP, UDP and other smaller parties swirled around at the fringes, doing what they could to benefit from the horse-trading.
The stakes are high, especially in ANC-led municipalities. Assassination follows assassination, and we’re supposed to pretend it’s normal that people kill each other for minor political posts in small communities that have no national news reach. If a counsellor falls in a township, does anyone hear? Answer: Nope. According to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (GI-TOC), more than 1800 people have died in execution-style murders between 2000 and 2020, of which 404 were political hits. There are few, if any consequences. If this doesn’t articulate the crisis within municipal governance, than nothing will—shitty jobs are worth killing for, because they’re rungs on the patronage ladder, and there is literally no ceiling on how high you can climb should you prove ruthless enough.
And the worst part? In a country in which nearly half of the adult population has no possibility of employment, it makes total sense to battle to the death over political positions.
What else is there?
Father, who art in Tuynhuys
When democracy delivers little more than a rehashed version of tyranny, then the future holds actual tyranny. South Africa’s current trajectory is as obvious as it is unpleasant: The national elections in 2024—AKA the Last Elections—will be the final episode in which a so-called moderate like Ramaphosa is likely to be at the top of the ANC ticket. After him come the mafia monsters, their RET henchfolk, and the “coalition” partners who will help them form a majority. Their intention will be to speed up the dissembling of our constitutional democracy. And it will be easy work.
And breaking shit is fun—just ask South Africa’s favourite medical parolee.
This may all sound alarmist, but recovering attempted-coup victims don’t have the luxury of happy dreams. Democracy’s failures are systemic and disastrous—poverty; racism; violence; incompetence. South Africa’s white and African supremacist cultures have led to a fetishization of the Big Man, the most obvious example of which is the only person that both camps adore: Nelson Mandela, Tata. Father.
But we need another situation, not another parent.
So how do we reach the empyrean heights of mildly efficient government? In the short term, and ironically given the potential for ethno-racial pot-stirring, it does mean embracing coalition governments. In the chaos of fragmentation lies the voice of the people, and a turning away of large political brands for smaller, more fragile parties that depend on voters rather than patronage networks for survival.
As Joel Netshitenzhe noted in a recent study on coalition government, we need to ask whether, firstly:
“there should be post-election workable coalition agreements that are lodged with, and assessed (but not vetoed) by, a competent authority. [Secondly] whether, at local level, the option of a proportional collective executive system—as distinct from an executive mayoralty—should become mandatory when a single party or coalition of parties is unable to attain an absolute majority. Thirdly, strict observance of the laws on the appointment of bureaucrats and on the role of politicians in administrative decisions, including procurement, is even more crucial under coalition government.”
That’s a start, but it won’t be enough. After all, you can’t legislate assholes into oblivion. Crooks don’t care about the law. We need to instill fear into our political representatives—the fear of getting kicked to the curb, certainly, but also the fear of mass civil action—the healthy terror of an engaged polity that doesn’t wait for elections to take democratic action. Simply, South Africans need to wrest politics from the exclusive control of politicians, nurturing a culture of self-guided localized governance that doesn’t include a vapid and insistent slavishness to a brand.
Should we fail to make our voices heard, then the inconvenience and expense of elections will, like so many things, become nothing more than a fashion show for authoritarian gangsters. South Africans are running out of time to save democracy. Consider the second last elections a warm-up for the real fight. DM