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Logic of the illogical: South Africa’s 2019 electoral culture


Susan Booysen is Director of Research, Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA), and visiting and emeritus professor, Wits School of Governance.

South Africa is host to a strange democracy. Judged by the electoral culture that rules on the eve of Election 2019 ‘the logic of the illogical’ is the parameter to understand the contradictions and contrasts, incongruous beliefs and actions that appear as the South African way of doing politics and elections.

To fathom the rules of the illogical one looks beyond the Constitution, laws, stated party positions and many other formal expressions of how South African politics is supposed to work. There is a different world of actual behaviour and de facto rules in electoral choices and in the politics beyond.

Hints of this ubiquitous display come to the fore in references to South Africa’s processes of parallel democracy and shadow state. Such forms of state are evident, respectively, in community protests and South Africa’s experiences of state capture. They coexist marvellously with the formal and constitutionally proclaimed government processes and structures – and there is more.

The contradictions of democracy a-la South Africa run deep and wide. South Africans take anomalies and fault lines in their stride; and their leaders – and soon-to-be(re)elected – conform. Even scoundrels from pits of malfeasance can survive politically and be elected to national office… and voters will have high expectations that things will be better. This is South Africa.

These same South Africans are deeply disillusioned with politics and politicians. The African Barometer survey series offers glimpses into this political psyche. Voters point eagerly to the disappointments of the first 25 years of democracy. They recognise that politicians are frequently corrupt and suspect that large numbers of the soon-to-be-elected ones will inevitably also turn this way. Yet they hope that things will be better, the next time around, by some miracle that will emanate from, possibly, a mythical backroom filled with wise souls who will redeem the country from the corrupt, self-obsessed and unaccountable ones.

Despite this cynicism, South Africans love their elections. Forecasts are that around 70%, perhaps slightly higher, possibly even matching the 73.5% of 2014, of the electorate will cast their ballots on 8 May 2019. Yet, between 30 and 40% (amongst others calculated by Ipsos surveys) report that they are not satisfied with any of the political parties. But South Africans will vote.

This electorate is ready to elect a government by supporting some political party – an outright majority, in all likelihood, will vote African National Congress. The endorsements will be for a party headed by a president who had won, only just, an ANC conference majority. It is a president who is suspected of hardly being in charge of more than a faction of his party. When voters endorse this faction, they can only hope that this particular faction will prevail. Cyril Ramaphosa’s party wants and needs him to enable to ANC to bag the election, while rumours fly that this exact party is plotting to shed this leader once they have won the election. It is opportunism personified, but large numbers of voters are undaunted.

To try and help the besieged party leader into a convincing electoral win on 8 May and save him from being ditched, calls are out for national electoral action to rescue the leader from himself, and from a powerful faction of the party. The electoral list is not making it any easier. So voters are asked to suspend their disbelief, pretend they do not see the zebra of clean and tainted ones on the ANC’s candidate list. They appear willing to believe that the stripes will dissolve miraculously, after the election, and that judicial processes will soar into flight and bring in accountability.

On the policy front, this president and his reformers have to walk the tightrope between financial prudence, restoring the raided and ravaged state-owned enterprises, getting investment – and following a populist policy path that will bring socio-economic justice where 25 years of so-called constitutional democracy has failed. South Africa, remember, “has one of the best constitutions in the world” – one that guarantees third-generation human rights to all citizens… Except, this has not been happening. Inequality escalates. The Constitutional Court has long ruled that the government has the responsibility to provide these rights within the framework of affordability.

Affordability of human dignity suffers at the hand of teeming and continuous leakages of state resources into the pockets of those who preach human rights and free, quality higher education, quality, and affordable public health care. This appears as just one of the simple contradictions ingrained in South African political culture. Only modest numbers of electoral choices will be redirected.

The same “logic” of South Africa’s illogical political culture extends into politicians at all levels “discovering” in their waves of community visits in this season of elections the poverty, squalor and suffering on the ground. It is as if they have not been in power for 25 years, structural distortions resulting from colonialism and apartheid notwithstanding. The president and his co-leaders are surprised by poverty, corruption, state capture, the havoc wreaked by the president and the ANC while they were in the top positions in party and state.

The contradictions of South African politics flourish. Many of the policies being offered to bait the electorate are contested. Land, energy and health care illustrate the absence of consensus in the ANC. The party’s election manifesto is not cast in stone.

Judged by preceding political praxis election manifesto promises will often remain paper promises, or be realised at best in diluted form. Policy adopted, in this world of wobbly but continuous party dominance, does not equate with the policy implemented. Even if policies are up for deliberation in the new parliament, the position endorsed at the ANC policy and elective conferences will prevail. Parliament will be the forum where once again costly rituals will be staged. There might, perhaps, be space for minor policy tweaking after extensive public consultation.

On the streets, the people know that the representatives and their political parties have little compulsion to remember the community needs once elected. Hence the protests serve to beckon the old and new representatives, extract the most tangible promises possible, mostly for basic services. Protest forces politicians into the communities, compel them to interact with citizens who have to battle for refuse removal and streets free of sewage. Politicians’ immunity to protests rise and hence infrastructural damage helps bring in the politicians and their bureaucrats. Looting (probably of foreigners’ shops) may or may not have the same effect – a blind eye reinforces the law of the lawless. Communities and their (elected) leaders frequently play by the same rules.

The leaders are feigning shock discoveries of the effects of malgovernance and absence of accountability, lack of services, disintegrating infrastructure, and faltering transport services as they expose themselves beyond glass houses and security systems installed by African Global Operations. Citizens have even learnt that street protests, for example in the North West roughly a year ago, can change government almost faster than one can spell election. Elections do not extract the same kind of accountability.

The elected politicians remain free to barter vague forms of hope that things will become better, sometime in the future or even after the May election. They promise to bring in policy and government action, enforce the law, in a country that had become abundantly lawless. Laws have limited value, both in political and criminal underworlds. Criminals, including rapists, walk free because of friends in the police stations. The culture of bribes means that investigatory files disappear, and speakers of truths to power may bite the bullet.

The joyous side of South Africa’s lawlessness comes with benefits for the poor. In lieu of non-delivery electricity and several other public services are often accessed for free (albeit both by the greedy and those who can truly not afford to pay). Citizens scoff at government’s e-toll quandary. Multiple other instances happen where government legitimises ex post facto citizens’ promulgation of their own rules.

This IS South Africa. At least parts of this 2019 world can be explained by the dual existence of a liberation party that will not let go, combined with an electorate that largely does not want to let go. Instead, they create their own, frequently illogical, alternative political order. DM


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