Opinionista Andrew Ihsaan Gasnolar 17 May 2019

South Africans must overcome the elections apathy and hold the government to account

The work of our government must be supported but, more importantly, we will have to push it towards more transparent and equitable methods that confront the fraying social fabric, inequality, poverty and unemployment.

Last week, I spent my voting day visiting a number of polling stations across the greater Cape Town area, which took me from Siqalo into Mitchells Plain, across Khayelitsha and then to Kensington, Century City, Parow North, De Tijger, the City Bowl and Athlone.

The disparity in resources and facilities between voting stations is often forgotten, much like the disparity between communities is often ignored, and voters across the country were confronted by this reality. Community halls/centres, places of worship and schools are often used in order to provide voters with the wherewithal to cast their vote.

However, in rural and more impoverished areas (often on the urban fringe, in part due to apartheid’s spatial legacy) this is not the case. There, South Africans need to contend with the most undignified of circumstances in order just to be, let alone attempt to participate in the voting process.

In the coming days and weeks, South Africans will hear a great deal about the health of our democracy. The focus of the initial conversation has centred on the process of voting, the outcomes of the vote and the work that the Independent Electoral Commission conducted in the field, as well as in the counting and verification process.

The next leg of the conversation has focused on the winners and losers of that election (noting that fewer valid votes were cast in 2019 than was the case 10 years previously), and what this means for the Economic Freedom Fighters, Democratic Alliance or the African National Congress.

A secondary postulation by some has been to talk about the rise of nationalism, and the growth around the political fringes juxtaposed against the backdrop of how the vast majority of South Africans remain at the centre, and thereby not on the extremes that are on offer.

Politicians will continue to spin a particular narrative (and this is all we should expect from them), but it is one that we do not need to adopt or interrogate, but rather start on the more important work of shaping the next five years.

A crucial step that South Africans will need to begin acting on is that our country’s democracy must extend far beyond the action of voting. Especially when far too many (millions in fact) have opted out of the process of voting, participation and involvement.

Many young South Africans have refused to answer the IEC’s call to register to vote, or even worse, to come out and actually vote.

More valid votes were counted in the national elections in 2009 than on 8 May 2019. This occurred in what was framed by many commentators as a critical election — an election that would determine our collective future.

South Africans have provided a clear mandate to the governing party; however, the mandate does not simply exist, but is a mandate that must be earned, tested and measured. In order for this democracy to really work (especially for those who are opting out or are excluded by certain structural realities), we as South Africans need to begin holding our political parties (and their members) responsible.

The accountability cannot simply be introduced as our electoral system has placed immense power in the hands of party bosses, and not with the electorate. Members of these political parties, like the electorate, are often used for very specific purposes, none of which is designed to foster accountability or responsiveness.

Visibility and presence are far more important than service and accountability. This pervasive and disturbing trend is visible across all political party formations and has filtered into how public services are in fact rendered.

The larger focus remains on the internal battle lines of the African National Congress, and particularly what the outcomes will be with the party’s integrity committee, and whether president Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa has a strong enough hand to determine who should lead the North West provincial government, as well as whether the Cabinet is reconstituted in a leaner and more effective manner.

The battle lines are apparent throughout the way our government functions, but also in whether accountability can be reintroduced for how our elected government functions, delivers and ultimately serves South Africans.

The reality is that the balance of power shall not simply tilt towards Ramaphosa and what is broadly reflected in the New Dawn narrative, but rather that there is a concerted and aggressive fight-back within the ANC against any shift in approach and philosophy.

South Africans, of course, must be concerned and invested in what happens within the ANC, as this has a direct impact on the type of government that will be put in place by the incoming Ramaphosa administration.

It is for this very reason that residents of Tshwane, Nelson Mandela Bay and Johannesburg should also be concerned with what is happening within the Democratic Alliance (and for that very reason the governing party activity within the Western Cape) and the Economic Freedom Fighters.

However, the crucial next step as we move beyond our first 25 years of constitutional democracy is that we need to start thinking about how we can shape our country with a more responsible, accountable and service-orientated outlook.

Part of this journey must start with real electoral reform that moves our parliamentary system from a purely proportional representative system and towards a combination that includes a constituency element so that members of our legislatures begin to realise that they remain accountable to the people of this country, and not simply the party bosses.

The work ahead for the Ramaphosa administration (and the various provincial executives) will not be easy. However, that is not the only work that is required in South Africa.

The work of our government must be supported, but more importantly, we will have to push it towards more transparent and equitable methods that confront the fraying social fabric, inequality, poverty and unemployment.

A reconstituted national government is a start of what will be a very long process. That process can only achieve a meaningful impact if South Africans begin demanding accountability and responsiveness from every public representative that benefits from our complacency, our apathy and our opting out of the system that has resulted in a voter turnout (including non-registration) that reflects that apathy in a very loud way. DM

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