Opinionista Andrew Ihsaan Gasnolar 3 May 2019

The X-Factor and the missing millions

Millions of South Africans have, since the first year of our democracy, opted not to participate in elections. The choice of not voting is enticing. It allows people the option of saying ‘stuff this – I don’t believe in these politicians and our system is broken’. But there are real consequences to this, not least that you get what you pay for.

With less than a week before our provincial and national elections, far too many South Africans are struggling with how to make the right choice. A choice whether to vote. A choice whether that vote actually matters. What that votes says about us as a people? And what that vote will mean for the next chapter on which South Africa so desperately needs to embark?

Many have spoken about the lost decade that was ushered in with the election of Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma as president of the ANC, and later as the Republic’s president. However, the lost years are not isolated to just the years of Zuma but extend to the very nature of what it means to be South African.

Those lost years are illustrated in our mounting unemployment numbers, the real consequences of growing and stagnant poverty levels, and our inability to even articulate the mechanisms whereby we will claw back inequality.

The challenges of South Africa are not simply housed in the triple threat of poverty, inequality and unemployment, but extend to almost every key outcome and index from health to education to consequences of climate change.

South Africans have, for a large part, already been making a choice – a choice about whether to participate or whether to opt out of the system. This is not a new phenomenon, but it becomes more pronounced and noticeable during an election cycle.

Millions of South Africans from our origin as a constitutional democracy have opted not to participate in our elections for the past 25 years. The option of exclusion is an enticing one. It allows people the option of saying “stuff this – I don’t believe in these politicians and our system is broken.

However, there are real consequences for not participating in an election, especially given the weight of those opting to exclude themselves from the democratic process which provides for governments to be formed in the absence of the voters participating in that process.

South Africa is a frustrating place in which to live, but it is particularly harrowing for those who don’t have access to social capital, the ability to use their own agency or the belief that their vote will ultimately matter.

Disillusionment makes sense given the past decade, but it also makes sense as a result of the many battles that South Africans have had to wage against their government(s) from issues revolving around service delivery issues, housing, water and sanitation, the very right to protest, access to education, issues relating to HIV-Aids or the very fractured and abusive nature of our society.

The issue of service delivery protests, for instance, is not considered as a systemic indictment on our government(s) but rather as simply the frustrations of a few. If this is the approach, then the numbers matter more than the substance of the issues being raised by South Africans. We can ill-afford to continue down this path as it continues to perpetuate the view that issues only matter if a large enough crowd is able to gather at any given point in time.

The choice at the ballot box next week is not an easy one.

South Africans are confronted with the full knowledge of the State Capture project, the purposeful derailment of our democratic institutions to serve the sole purpose of self-interest and greed, the systemic and structural challenges of our society, the worsening economic outlook and confidence by consumers, and that our political parties do not serve the people of this country.

It is not surprising that issues of fear have crept into the election cycle. Fear that Ramaphosa may be removed after the election by an emboldened Magashule faction (with its origins in the State Capture project) at the ANC’s National Executive Committee sitting. Fear (perpetuated by a besieged Democratic Alliance caucus in the Western Cape) that the Western Cape will be lost and the consequences would immediately be destructive with the reminder that “small parties” should not be flirted with.

Fear continues to feed into a particular anti-foreign rhetoric that has been perpetuated by the major opposition parties as well as by the governing ANC in certain quarters. Fear that does not work towards unity, but rather fear that is driven to achieve an expedient outcome.

Fear is what our election has been reduced to. No grand vision for what South Africa will be or what it can be. Fear of the other. Fear of what would happen should the Western Cape be faced with the prospect of coalition politics. Fear of what the Magashule faction might do beyond 8 May 2019. Fear of what coalition politics might look like in Gauteng.

The truth is only South Africans are able to confront that fear head-on. We cannot expect more from our political parties. South Africans are seized with an opportunity – an opportunity to choose a government of our making, a government that will honour the promise of freedom, a government that is required to correct the wrongs, and a government that is entrusted to serve the people.

The choices are bleak. We have the ANC holding on to the message of renewal from Ramaphosa yet hamstrung by questionable characters at every turn; the Democratic Alliance that governs in a number of metropolitan cities as well as in the Western Cape, yet unable to confront questions of inequality and injustice that continue to extend regardless of its own track record of government; and the robust voices of the Economic Freedom Fighters, which yet still struggles to confront its own story of capture (that has its origins in the governing party’s youth league) and the hypocrisy it peddles.

The options beyond the major three parties are not much better with each of those parties having their own smallanyana skeletons, expediency, double-speak, hypocrisy and a lack of commitment to articulating and working toward a different South Africa.

This election cycle, millions of South Africans will once again opt not to participate in the election, a silent majority that could have shifted and shaped our collective future.

It is not surprising that they will choose not to participate. However, as you approach the polling station next week, remember that the step to make your mark is not your only commitment to this constitutional democracy. We would be foolish to believe that our politicians can be entrusted to make better and wiser choices.

We must remember that the battles that have defined who we are have been fought by ordinary South Africans in the streets, in our communities, on the streets of public opinion, in our courts, through our media and where necessary, in our places of worship, education and healthcare.

The first step next week will be to make a choice (as hard as that may be) and to stand in the ballot box and either make the choice as best you can or to leave a message for the IEC (ie this would amount to spoiling your ballot). The choice is yours and it is something entrusted to you by our Constitution and our forebears.

Our collective futures are not bound by simply exercising our right to vote on 8 May, but rather it must be the first step in our collective effort to rebuild South Africa – not as it is, but rather to rebuild a country that is able to confront the issues affecting our people.

This is the work of the people. The work will require electoral reform, it will require us to confront the issues that underpin our broken society, but most of all it will have to begin by providing an alternative narrative to all South Africans. This is work that cannot be left to the politicians and their political formations but rather this is work that can only be started and completed by us. The first step in that journey is for all of us to simply to make the best possible choice come May 8. DM

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