Opinionista Jacques Rousseau 11 April 2011

Trapped in an abusive relationship? Dial 0800-VOTE

One way of thinking about the upcoming local government elections is as a session of couples’ therapy. While some disaffected voters frequent their local singles bar, either genuinely unattached or “just looking” and others actively flee a situation they realise they simply can’t cope with, many voters are still trying to make their current relationships work.

The ANC might hope that the roughly 66% of votes it attracted in the municipal elections of 2006 came from South Africans who remain committed to that particular relationship. But from the outside, where I find myself, it is sometimes difficult to understand why that might be the case, as the relationship seems increasingly one-sided, and sometimes even abusive.

This is not to say that it can’t be fixed, if both parties put in the effort. And perhaps the relationship is simply undergoing a short-term wobble – a 17-year itch of sorts. But when one party in a relationship – the voter – is treated with the sort of contempt occasionally displayed by people representing the ANC, it seems entirely appropriate to question whether both remain equally committed to making the relationship work.

In February, President Zuma told us that when “you vote for the ANC, you are also choosing to go to heaven. When you don’t vote for the ANC you should know that you are choosing that man who carries a fork … who cooks people”. As Sipho Hlongwane correctly pointed out (http://www.thedailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2011-02-07-the-devil-votes-da), statements like these seem little more than diversionary tactics, intended to distract attention from dysfunctional local municipalities, corruption and the like. As per those oft-misunderstood and abused lines from Marx, religion is here meant to serve as the resigned “sigh of the oppressed creature”, and an opiate for the masses.

Beyond the cynicism of exploiting the religious beliefs of your citizens to retain votes, Zuma’s statement was also a lie. Not only a lie from within the belief system to which he was appealing (for where in the Christian Bible does one find God’s endorsement of the ANC?), but also a lie from outside of those beliefs, in that it is telling voters that factors besides government performance should determine which boxes you cross on 18 May.

Jackson Mthembu responded to the criticism resulting from Zuma’s statement by telling us that it was neither blasphemous, nor to be taken seriously. “South Africans – both black and white – fully understand the use of figurative expressions,” Mthembu said, after which he pointed out that those perturbed by this statement “are probably driven by jealousy for not having thought of the expression themselves”.

These are also lies. With approximately 73% of South Africans self-identifying as Christians, and in a country where many outside of the middle- and upper-classes still take sangomas seriously, the claim that we all fully understand the distinction between literal and figurative speech is difficult to read as anything but an attempt at damage-limitation, where an apology and a retraction would have been more appropriate.

It’s also worth pointing out that the majority of eligible voters in the upcoming elections still came through a system where educational resources were unequally deployed, and – regardless of how well or how poorly you think we’re being educated today – would probably not have been taught that references to eternal damnation by presidents should not be taken seriously.

Mthembu’s jealousy statement is also likely either to be dishonest (or simply naïve), in that we can well imagine other political parties as being capable of dreaming up ways to threaten voters into supporting them. The difference, of course, is that they would usually choose to spend their time more productively, or failing that, to not deploy those threats at all. The ACDP is the exception here, given that they seem to think God wants to micro-manage all aspects of our lives.

Tony Ehrenreich, the likely mayoral candidate for the ANC in Cape Town, also exploited voters with a similar lie on 6 March when he told a community meeting they needed to choose whether they wanted to be “on the side of justice” (by voting ANC), or “on the side of the devil”, which is what a vote for the DA (specifically Helen Zille) would apparently mean. Zille must, therefore, be a satanic monkey, if you put Ehrenreich’s statement alongside one of Malema’s recent outbursts in which he asserted that Zille would not be out of place in a simian dancing troupe.

But just in case not all voters are Christians and, therefore, aren’t fearful of Satan or his monkey-minions, Malema recently upped the ante by telling us not only would a vote for anyone other than the ANC send you to hell, it would also contribute to the death of a flesh-and-blood icon, Nelson Mandela. You would, in effect, be committing murder – perhaps even something like patricide – by voting for an opposition party.

Last week, Malema told the crowd at a Port Elizabeth rally that “President Mandela is sick and you don’t want to contribute to a worsening condition of Mandela by not voting ANC. President Mandela will never endure if the ANC is out of power”. Just as with Zuma and Ehrenreich’s statements (and, probably, similar ones made at smaller and unreported gatherings), no apologies or retractions are forthcoming, even though these statements amount to treating voters with utter contempt. Contempt, because they don’t treat voters as capable of making choices based on genuine political issues, such as service delivery or which up-and-coming dictators we plan to supply weapons to next. Instead, voters are simply treated as a means to the end of retaining power – which is why this relationship is dysfunctional.

If you find yourself in a relationship where persuasion occurs through emotional blackmail rather than evidence or mutual interest, then the chances are good the relationship is an abusive one. Emotional blackmail uses fear or guilt to create the impression you have no choice but to go along with the abusers’ wishes. Yet elections are meant to be all about choice, not about threats and intimidation.

At a certain point in such a relationship, friends and family would no doubt counsel you to cut your losses and end things before more harm is done. We’re often reluctant to do so – not only because of genuine commitment or affection, but also because of cognitive biases involving escalation of commitment (in extremis, as typified in Stockholm syndrome). So instead, we might try to make it work and give the abuser one more chance.

And this is, of course, our choice and our right. We should, however, remember to try not to be distracted by threats and accusations. Perhaps we should also remember how it works in other relationships, where claims of contrition and a desire to change require evidence or at least an acknowledgement of wrongdoing. DM