SA democracy is under threat — we have the power to save it
As the quality of life for most in South Africa continues to decline, many explanations are put forward as to why the ANC is still in control of the government. Sometimes, issues like ‘self-hate’ are blamed, or that people on our continent ‘forgive’ too easily.
There is no reason to believe that the motivations of voters in South Africa — indeed, all of Africa — are any different from those in the rest of the world.
However, one of the more consistent claims to come from callers to English-language radio stations over the past few years can be summed up as, “We African people cannot govern” or, “We deserve what we get because we choose bad leaders.” It may be important to mention that the people who make these claims were treated horribly by the apartheid government.
These claims are wrong in my opinion and yet they are slowly but surely entering the mainstream.
In the Sunday Times at the weekend, Makhudu Sefara wrote about the frustration many felt with how people in Hammanskraal welcomed President Cyril Ramaphosa, despite the fact his government has so obviously failed them, allowing the cholera outbreak to take many lives.
“Truth is, throughout Africa we suffer unimaginable self-hatred. We reward tinpot dictators who seem to relish perpetuating our suffering. The continent may be resource-rich but those we elevate seem to have an uncanny ability to work against Africa’s progress, with the help of its voters.”
It appears that Sefara, and others who agree with him, believe that, somehow, geography is influencing political behaviour.
While Sefara does not say this, the end-point of this argument could be that there is something inherent in people born on this continent that makes them different to people born elsewhere.
This argument cannot be sustained. It can also be dangerous. It provides an easy way out for the people who brought us to where we are, and the notion that our problems are inevitable, when in fact they are not.
The biggest danger of this argument is that it suggests there are inherent differences between people on our continent and people on other continents. For example, Sefara points out: “We voted for Jacob Zuma knowing how deeply compromised he was, how unprincipled he was back in 2009. Believe it or not, the majority of South Africans voted for him to get a second term in 2014 regardless of everything.”
He says this almost as if we are different from other people.
Johnson, Trump and Bolsonaro…
But in the UK, people voted to leave the European Union despite clear evidence that this would make them poorer and weaker. They voted for Boris Johnson, despite the well-known fact he could not be trusted and was a habitual liar.
In the US, the GOP nominated, and the electoral college (states) elected Donald Trump, despite knowing that he was a vain, incompetent liar, harasser of women, con artist and failed businessman who would make the country fragile and the world more dangerous.
In Brazil, a country very much like South Africa in terms of its diversity and inequality, with many similar elements in its history (albeit with important differences), a right-wing lunatic, Jair Bolsonaro, was elected as president.
One of the ways these leaders won political power was to use populism as a guiding philosophy and identity-based culture wars as weapons to stoke their voters’ fears and apprehensions. They abused ethnicities and religious beliefs, and used dog-whistle tactics to attack their political opponents, who they, with the media, branded “enemies of the people”.
Their politics of grievance is a work of dark art — these well-off leaders claim to speak for those at the bottom of the pyramid, those who had lost out in the global economic order. Their enemies are concoctions of global organisations, like the UN and the EU, or multinational companies and global elites, as well as individuals like George Soros and Bill Gates.
Their other favourite method: conspiracy theories in multiple flavours.
Zuma clung to power towards the end of his presidency and claimed to be the victim of white people and that he had been “poisoned” because he had led South Africa into BRICS. His tale of victimisation by the National Prosecuting Authority had a powerful resonance with those who experienced abuse at the hands of authorities.
Even now, the argument around the International Criminal Court (ICC) and whether our government should arrest Russian President Vladimir Putin has some conspiracy elements.
Supporters of the court say that Putin should face justice. While there are many problems with the ICC, and pursuing justice for someone who is a sitting head of state is always going to be virtually impossible, those who oppose the court use identity to convince people to join them in their opposition. They point to the fact that almost everyone it has ever prosecuted has been black and from Africa (which Putin definitely is not).
The essence of politics
While this may be frustrating for those who support the court and the arrest of Putin, it is normal politics. Here, in Africa, and everywhere.
This is, and probably will always be, the very essence of politics: it is about convincing people who are like you to vote for you. Populists like Johnson, Trump and Bolsonaro have done this very well.
And strangely, few Brazilians, or Americans or Europeans claim to be “self-haters” as a result of these populists coming to power. Rather they have dealt with these leaders politically, by voting them out of office, or by putting pressure on their parties to remove them. To do this, they formed coalitions of different groups.
These included people who were losing out because of the ideologies of those who were in power — unionists, minorities and others who believed that the populists were a threat to their democracies and their rights.
Again, elements of identity were present. They just happened to be different elements of identity than those used by their opponents. Even now, US President Joe Biden launched his re-election campaign stating: “The question we are facing is whether in the years ahead we have more freedom or less freedom, more rights or fewer.”
This seems to be aimed directly at particular groups, including women, African Americans and members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
This is what politics is in democracies around the world. There is no reason to believe that politics on our continent is any different to politics anywhere else. To claim that our politics, our leaders and our decisions are inherently different from those of other democracies may actually be dangerous. DM