South Africa

Trainspotter

2021: South Africa’s second-last elections

A man slumps beside a fire with a pair of companions in Fietas, in Johannesburg’s Ward 58. Fietas has become a hub of informal recyclers who say the government does nothing for them. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Enjoy ‘em while you can.

Stillborn free

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. 

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

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All Comments 39

  • “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.”

    When will SAcans, say that enough is enough?

  • Brilliant and disturbing article. The photograph at the top says it all- it could be depicting the very poor and weary of over100years ago with its strange dark vaporous gloom. So , in essence, it’s all up to civil society to find a way forward. Can we do it?

  • A start would be to take politics out of service delivery. Imagine if councils and metros were run by technocrats focused on service delivery instead of politics.

  • To comment on this article, the best I’ve ever read at the age of 70, will be an incredible insult to the author, Mr Poplak. Thank you sir, your pen is worth gold

  • Richard Poplak back at his viscerally lyrical and prophetic best. Thank you for this piece, Richard: your unique gift of word-weaving that reveals a unique perspective on the status quo made this the most real thing I read today. Please continue doing this.

  • Sad but very true. Look at Beirut – that’s what happens when a corrupt elite rules by relying on identity politics and patronage. And that’s where we are heading it seems….

  • Second last election? I doubt that! I think South Africans have more sense than you grant them, Richard! I also agree with Memphis that the swearing does not enhance an otherwise well-written warning. We certainly need to wake up to the dangers of megalomaniac EFF cadres taking over and making Jacob Zuma look like a boy scout!

  • Prophets have been murdered for less. And comedians would struggle to make such powerfully liberating mind bending imagery. A masterpiece in insulting your audience into a doubtful awakening that hopefully goes some way to alleviating your obvious pain.
    You are the master, Richard.
    My love and thoughts are with you while yours are engaged in the tragedy that is our beloved country.

  • Richard.
    Superb review thank you. Keep on swearing please its therapeutic and helps me void ANC-induced mental crap.
    A one party state is inevitable after (or before) the last elections. If a pretext is needed, it will be a minor upgrade of the eternal Covid-19 National State of Disaster to a National State of Emergency with martial law.
    CR has the army leadership on side as he showed by his recent appointees, and by now the RET army sympathisers have been identified and fired.
    This would be the best outcome for when the coup occurs.

  • Organising from the bottom up, and depoliticizing local government are the best place to start. There are some interesting coalitions of independent candidates running (for example in NMB). Support them, join them, work to hold the elected accountable.

  • Richard is saying what many others are saying but in his own ‘choice’ words. It is naive to think that a Western style democracy was the solution to a country with as fractured a history as ours – a country that probably should never have been a single country with a unitary constitution. The English constitution is over a thousand years old. The US constitution is over 200 years old and recent events show that Americans are happy to trash their constitution. We come from a mock democratic constitution that was an ethnic nationalist dictatorship and a political tradition in which elderly tribal elders had to be respected and carried the final say.
    Cedric is right – we need to start building from the bottom. In the turbulent 1970’s and 80’s, many young South Africans, recently out of university, played a critical role in areas such as industrial relations, human rights and housing. In the intervening years many have continued to work for a just society rather than an ideology and understand the nitty gritty of dealing with poverty and inequality. At the same time, there is a stirring at community level as citizens start to address the urgent problems of the day – but often with no access to practical know how. NGO’s with real expertise need to assist these stirrings so that they can bring about successful change at grass roots level. There is so much talent and energy in our country that just needs to be channeled.

  • Ah Richard it’s so good to have you back! Best piece you’ve ever written! The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And still it brings hope. We need to find something new and get on with it. All hail!

  • It is so easy to ‘cast shade’ on the DA – lump all politicians together as being ineffective and not having local interests at heart. Journalists and media in general do it routinely to appear ‘balanced’ and ‘unbiased’ even when the facts do not support it.
    Historical inequalities are often used to distract from current effective governance reports. Ports,, Prasa,, power and policing problems in the western cape are thrown into local election coverage even though they are actually under the control of the ANC national government.
    Media made fun of the ‘day zero’ campaign but it worked.
    Limited funds are used effectively to maintain infrastructure and you can get a drivers licence issued!!
    We should give credit where it is due.
    Local government is a generally thankless job and if we tar all politicians with the same brush we destroy the democratic hope

  • Richard Poplack’s second last elections thing – dunno why second last – he doesn’t say – or I didn’t pick up why, I was too engrossed in getting to the the end or the article as fast as I could. Anyway, this piece is the worst thing I have read for a long time, maybe ever. Slick to be sure and all pretty much true. But the negativity blows it out of the water. This dystopian stuff does no-one any good.
    When was it that South Africa was allowed to feel more sorry for itself than anyone else? When last did Richard look around at the rest of the planet? No-one bitches anywhere near this intensity. No-one else in other countries, many who have it worse, are arrogant enough to think they have the right to claim the apocalypse. Others, including some who have nothing left at all- literally nothing- don’t do this cry brat thing, this ‘woe is us : this ‘our second last summer or winter or second last cricket match’. Why would be think we are so special?

    Stan Garrun

  • FIVE! I read it again, hunted, and found Five Rude Words!
    Here they are:- ass-creeping (troll armies); (the greatest) fuck up (in the entire…); shitty (jobs); (breaking) shit; and (legislate) assholes (into oblivion). Damn! I can’t embolden them.
    Richard Poplak, congratulations on using a magnificent array of Big, Appropriate, Stylish words, including Five Rude Ones, to convey your message. Keep it up.
    And Blanche – sorry, Memphis, and Alan Keen, avert your eyes and do up your top buttons. This is 2021 and this is how people write and speak.
    I object strenuously to swearing when it displays a paucity of vocabulary, but this isn’t one of those occasions.

  • It’s strangely heartening to find someone more cynical than me, so thanks for that. The light at the end of the Poplak tunnel is so faint, at best it is probably just some homeless oke lighting up an entjie. At worst, its the tail lights of democracy receding. I think it’s the latter, so I largely agree with Poplak’s ‘the end is naai’ scenario. To further depress, consider this – there are just over 26 million registered voters, of which less than half will vote, half of that who will vote for New Dawn ANC – so our future will be determined by approximately 6.5m fools with vested interests. I am so gatvol of the parties, I am probably going to vote for Adrian Collins, a Ward 77 independent, because he lives here, and he seems to think that unter-Fuhrer JP Smit holds too much sway in the Council. Let’s hope us cynics are wrong, and South Africa saves itself by abandoning the ANC.

  • Depressing indeed. Hopefully enough people will read this and then make their voting decision/s wisely. And if not, what’s to be done?

  • Incredible timing, running as top story two consecutive days before elections. The most pessimistic possible perspective – life never turns out according to the worst predictions. There is so much positive to support – more positives than negatives. I wish DM would headline more of these pieces.

  • When talking about the current politics in South Africa, I find it’s difficult not to use foul four letter words, but in the context of this article and combined with the erudite penmanship, they perfectly describe the mood of the moment…
    My personal favourite is “you can’t legislate assholes into oblivion.” and therein lies the rub… we can’t jail assholes into oblivion either!
    While we wait for the government to take decisive action against the 12 (?) suspects of the July rioting, while we wait for the Zondo commission report on the industrial scale government corruption, while we wait for the NPA to charge and jail those same liars and thieves, while we wait for the man in the hat to give us a functioning police force, while we wait for the granny to do her job and fix her cooperative governance sepaetment, hells bells we are even waiting on the ANC to self correct!!!
    In a nutshell, I believe what Richard is so eloquently telling us is to stop whining and waiting and get up of our asses and become active citizens, or our democracy will be dead in the water in the very near future …

  • This is the second last election because by 2024 the ANC portion of the legitimate vote will probably finally have dipped well below 50% and they will have to rig the whole system to ensure that they are seen to “win” in the eyes of the observers from the AU. To expect the ANC to peacefully concede power is naive in the extreme.

  • Concerning, but not surprising. One of the biggest threats to the economy is clearly Eskom and that is not going to be turned around until the ANC stops interfering in the running of the utility and accepts that they do not have the capability of running a highly technical utility. Unfortunately, Affirmative Action as we know it, is going to prove to be the downfall of South Africa. Instead of insisting that those with the skill and experience nurture and train the young engineers of the future, they got rid of the technically competent persons because of the colour of their skin. That, corruption and procurement policies, have meant that Eskom’s generating efficiency has dropped from 95% before ’95 to less than 50% today. Load shedding will be with us for another 10+ years.

  • Richard resonates my cynicism. For every sensible vote there are tens of idiot votes. If this nation can vote a master criminal into power (twice), who knows what level of ignorant self destruction we are capable of, carried along on the tide of our national stupidity. There are no lifeguards in a fascist state.

  • Unless we take away the privileges politicians have awarded themselves, unless they earn normal salaries, buy their own houses and cars, are forced to use public transport, hospitals and schools (the ones they give us), held accountable, go to jail when they steal, do an honest day’s work every day competently this story will be the story of our lives for ever.
    The self acclaimed royalty that pose as leaders are nothing more than a bunch of incompetent, lazy freaks with no concept of decency, honesty or leadership.

    There is no democracy to save. This country has been run by morally bankrupt thugs from the beginning – the British, the National party and the ANC.
    All equally evil, self obsessed and useless.