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2019 Elections: Proof that the people have withdrawn their consent

Luke Jordan is the CEO of Grassroot, a community organizing tech start-up he founded in 2015. He worked at the World Bank in India from 2011-14, and at McKinsey in China from 2005-10. He writes in his personal capacity, and the views expressed here do not reflect those of Grassroot or any other organization with which he may be affiliated.

Last week, on 8 May 2019, the election turnout dropped below 50% of eligible voters. The elections are used for legitimacy by a class of politicians, media and civil society who will wag their fingers at those who said ‘none of the above’. But a majority of the people now say this is democracy only as farce. We can hear that and start to think hard about our institutions and how to change them, or sit back and wait for a disaster to actually happen.

Two conclusions from the 8 May 2019 elections are inescapable. The first is that the opposition as a whole failed.

Large portions of the media are deeply invested in the idea of Julius Malema and the Economic Freedom Fighters as a viable political alternative.

They have given Malema and the EFF coverage out of any proportion to its true support (as opposed to its Twitter following). Malema uses “journalists” — their craving for controversy and for feeling like insiders — very skilfully, and no one likes to feel used, so they have to pretend the party is more vibrant and important than it is.

As a result, some furious spinning is taking place that less than 11% and not a single king being made is a positive result, just because it represents growth.

After six years of wall-to-wall free media coverage and two-and-a-half years with veto power in three major cities, an extra 4% of the vote is dismal. Since the true comparison should be 2016, not 2014, the growth is a mere 2%, or a few hundred thousand voters.

For a radical-left party in the most unequal country in the world, six years after founding, obtaining only half as many votes as a centre-right minority party (the DA) is a deep failure.

For the DA itself, the result is far worse. Two-and-a-half years after taking power over service delivery for an additional eight million people, it not only failed to turn a single one of those people into an additional vote, it lost half a million of them. Some are trying to blame the performance on a bad marketing campaign or on Mmusi Maimane.

The campaign was badly run and Maimane is an ineffective leader. But that would not have mattered if the DA had simply governed with any kind of effectiveness or efficiency in the metros it took over. If your entire argument to the people is “yes we look like we protect white interests, but trust us we are good at running things”, then you need to be good at running things. The manifest incompetence and failures to respond to the poor in Tshwane, Nelson Mandela Bay and above all Joburg have come home to roost.

Those were not the failures of Maimane, but of the party. Members of the party who believed the DA’s own excuses and its furious spinning of mediocrity as so-called delivery need to look at themselves for this result. The worst apologists are those who say “we weren’t ready”. Next time, if there is a next time, if you see a chance to govern five million people in the most important city in the country, but it depends on installing a shampoo merchant as mayor and shovelling tenders to the EFF, don’t take it. Wait. Otherwise, to paraphrase Helen Zille, your party fails the democracy test.

On the other hand, all parties failed the democracy test. The ANC received almost two million fewer votes than it did in 1994. The DA received 300,000 votes fewer than the National Party did in 1994. The EFF received 200,000 votes less than the IFP in 1994. That was a landmark election. But since then the population has grown by 70% and the number of eligible voters by roughly 10 million.

In all, fewer than half of eligible voters voted. That is below almost any developed country, even the famously low-turnout US. It is a full 20% below India, with a fifth of our income, and most of its voters in rural areas with few to no roads. Some furious spinning will try to attribute the disastrous turnout to “apathy” or “lack of engagement”. In a country with daily service delivery protests, not more than a year after #FeesMustFall, that is patently absurd.

There are three roles elections can play in a democracy. In a strong and vibrant democracy, they are a useful supplement to a whole range of ways in which ordinary people deliberate on and take part in public affairs. In a weak, but still robust democracy, they are a means by which new social or political forces can influence power, and by which, on occasion, failed political classes can be thrown out.

In a decayed democracy, elections are none of these things, but instead a device of mere legitimation. Then elections themselves are corrupted into a device by which people who run in them and take up positions of power justify their monopoly on that power and their exclusion of stronger forms of democracy and activity. Such corrupt legitimation is supported by the people who depend on the politicians, whether those the politicians appoint as bureaucrats, or those who cover the politicians, as so-called journalists.

We are clearly in the third situation. The danger is that if democracies are decayed, especially if highly unequal and scarred by division, they are unlikely to just remain that way. Either they are rejuvenated, and move from the third to the second or first of the types described above — or they become autocracy, which is far worse than even a decayed democracy.

The great risk is that attempts at the former — at rejuvenation — can become vehicles for autocracy. That is what occurred in Venezuela. As described in Dragon in the Tropics, a detailed political analysis of Hugo Chavez’s rise, that rise began with “a grassroots movement that began as an effort to bring more democracy to Venezuela”.

In the 1990s Venezuela’s party system was as decayed as ours. Well intentioned, but badly thought-through reforms, such as direct election for provincial governors without considering in depth who would run and how, were the first steps down the path to today’s catastrophe.

That does not mean we can sit back. As Julius Malema once said, “politics abhors a vacuum”. He has filled a vacuum of 5% of eligible voters; a vacuum of 50% remains to be filled. One way or another that will happen. Already one hears of quasi-movements by outcasts from the main parties or losers of their factional battles, calling for “independent” candidates (as if anyone can run for a constituency of a few hundred thousand people without depending on a party or the rich).

Usually, people who call for independent candidates are just political entrepreneurs that mean “me” when they say independent. Few of them appear to be a Chavez in the making, and none have traction, but that does not mean we can stand still.

If there is one slightly positive outcome of last Friday, it is that we have another five years. The failure of the Numsa party may finally prompt the left to move on from two decades of dreaming about a workers’ party coming to rescue them. Without Zuma, with no election coming, with the failures of last week, the opposition and civil society may finally leave their bubbles and start building something new.

Those may be vain hopes. Witness the furious attempts to compare these results to 2014 instead of 2016 and to avert the gaze by any means possible from the central facts. But one way or another we need a movement for governance reform without self-deception, without blinkers, hostile to all opportunists and continuously aware of the Venezuela risk.

What should it call for? Open primaries in the parties, for local councillor and parliamentary lists; recall provisions for councillors; regularly invoked, randomly selected citizen assemblies able to remove mayors, premiers, and the president; powers of initiative and referendum; and a range of others — perhaps. But I cannot say. I should not say. No one in the chattering class, the commentariat, or any of the existing parties — current members or exiles — should say.

To have any real chance of fixing our deep governance problems, any such movement would have to be built from the ground. It must draw on the fact that the poor, whose lives depend on the operation of power, understand it far better than any middle-class suburb dweller will. Once before, 65 years ago with the original People’s Charter, there was such a movement. The only “mandate” last week gave to anyone was for another attempt at such a thing. Half the country and more is waiting to take part. DM


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