Opinionista Brij Maharaj 6 May 2019

Ramaphosa — the best of a bad bunch?

Many South Africans will remember the heady 1990s and especially the first democratic elections in 1994. Hundreds of millions of rands from foreign donors were used to ‘educate’ people to place a cross on the ballot sheet. With the wisdom of hindsight, this training should have been extended to educate voters to hold elected politicians accountable.

In some faiths, begging is viewed as an important exercise in humility and overcoming the ego. Similarly, elections are a humbling experience for politicians. So in South Africa (the fast-disappearing rainbow nation, if there ever was one), in recent weeks politicians of all persuasions have been forced to leave their perches and bow and kneel in front of the electorate with joined palms, begging for their votes — and making all kinds of promises in return.

How seriously should voters take election manifestos? These are often full of good (populist) intentions with absolutely no indication of how this will be realised, and will hence remain empty promises. And for the next five years, the electorate will be forgotten and disconnected from political leaders.

In the era of cellphones, voters contact their elected political representatives via smoke signals — burning tyres, roadblocks, destruction of property and violence. This scenario is aptly captured in W.B. Yeats poem, The Second Coming:

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed …

This disconnection is linked to the party list system, where the ruling political organisation imposes its candidates on communities and the incumbent reports to his/her political masters rather than the voters. In contrast, in the constituency-based system elected representatives have to be more accountable to the voters. In 2003 the Van Zyl Slabbert Commission on Electoral Reform recommended a constituency-based electoral system, but this was report was shelved by the Thabo Mbeki government.

Mpumelelo Mkhabela succinctly summarises the key concerns of the electorate:

What South Africans want to hear from Ramaphosa and all those eyeing Cabinet and other positions after the elections is how they will take the country to where it deserves to be and unleash its full potential? How will their selfish interests be tamed so that they serve the public interest? Why must we believe that they won’t be corrupt, that they won’t weaken state institutions and subject them to decay?”

There will continue to be debates of the wasted nine years of the Zuma-Gupta era — the golden age for the looters. The impacts have been aptly summarised by Eunomix Business and Economics, a Johannesburg political risk advisory company:

South Africa’s performance on a range of social, economic and governance measures deteriorated more in the past 12 years than any other nation not at war.”

The 2019 elections are especially challenging because, as Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgoba has laconically argued:

Too often, the behaviour of our parliamentarians has been disgraceful. I don’t exempt any of the major parties from this criticism. All have been guilty on occasion of opportunistic stunts and shameful attacks. In the public mind, Parliament has become a place of spectacle instead of serious debate about the laws and policies needed to improve people’s lives”.

The hazards of trying to predict the outcomes of elections are similar to that of horse racing — the favourites do not always win and the outcomes can also be fixed (and voters are fickle). Given that the Guptas are now ensconced in Dubai and their South African acolytes are secretly measuring up for designer orange overalls and investigating which incarceration centres have the best hospital wards and sick bays, the potential for skulduggery is reduced. However, remember that the Watsons are still in town, and the president’s son still has unexplained Bosasa connections.

Notwithstanding, all indicators suggest that Ramaphosa (widely viewed as the best of a bad bunch) will win, and that some benefits will accrue to the beleaguered ANC. To his credit, President Ramaphosa has acknowledged that the ANC was captured, before the state.

Given his national popularity and his commitment to going after the vultures, the rogues in the ANC are uneasy and eying a possible coalition with their counterparts in the EFF to whom a public invitation has already been extended. Their ultimate aim is to terminate Ramaphosa’s grip on power and restore the captured state status quo of the Zuma era and the licence to loot.

There is also a rather weak field in the 2019 race. With 48 parties registered by the IEC on the ballot form, it would appear that South Africans are spoilt for choice. There are many jokers in the pack. Nonetheless, the main players will be the ANC, DA, and EFF (in that order), with some regional permutations (for example, IFP in KZN).

The DA appears to be schizophrenic and vacillates, not sure whether it represents South Africans or the old white guard. The latter appears to have mastered ventriloquism to a fine art, and Mmusi Aloysias Maimane provides an excellent echo chamber. Leaders with the potential of Lindiwe Mazibuko are stifled. Given the DA’s dependence on the coloured vote in the Western Cape, mishandling the fallout with Patricia de Lille was basically a form of hara-kiri.

The EFF appears to be fighting for the economic freedom of its leaders and promises that the poor will wait for cake. Its leaders aspire to become one with their “enemies” (whites) as members of elite clubs in Sandton (from which the residents of Alex are excluded). Pravin Gordhan and his ethnic group (South Africans of Indian descent) are the new enemies of the EFF who must ultimately be repatriated to their ancestral homeland — India. And the search is on for another VBS.

Many South Africans would remember the heady 1990s and especially the first democratic elections in 1994. This lowly academic was nominated by the ANC to be an election monitor — excellence and integrity mattered in those days! Hundreds of millions of rands from foreign donors were used to “educate” people to place a cross on the ballot sheet. With the wisdom of hindsight, this training should have been extended to educate voters to hold elected politicians accountable.

Democracy, beyond the vote, is essentially about challenging and holding to account office bearers who are custodians of the public purse, and daring to dissent and be different, rather than following the flock. In other words, “speaking truth to power”.

A people’s democracy is boisterous and cantankerous, with a cacophony of voices and opinions — all demanding to be heard. The ANC government arrogantly believes that because of its (fast disappearing) struggle credentials it is above and beyond reproach. Until recently, any criticism of its actions was deemed to be unpatriotic.

In the 2019 elections the words of the late Chris Hani are particularly germane:

What we need in South Africa is for egos to be suppressed in favour of peace. We need to create a new breed of South Africans who love their country and love everybody, irrespective of their colour.”

As South Africans celebrate 25 years of democracy, many voters are sceptical about politicians and their motives and want to withhold their vote. There is a view that citizens get the public representatives they deserve.

According to Greek philosopher Socrates, if the wise refuse to rule, then they should “prepare to suffer the rule of idiots”.

His student Plato similarly argued that one of the consequences of “refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors”.

And the final word from critically acclaimed English novelist, George Orwell, the master of satire, who contended that those “who elect corrupt politicians, imposters thieves and traitors are not victims… but accomplices”.

So think wisely, and on 8 May 2019 go and mark your X for the party of your choice. DM

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