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Opinionista

This election has left us with more questions than answers

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Suntosh R Pillay is a clinical psychologist in Durban, South Africa, who writes widely on social issues.

The posters are down, the ink has faded, the speeches have ended, and the free T-shirts are back in storage. Election season is over. Now it’s time for cabinets, coalitions and analysis.

Our sixth national Parliament (2019-2024) will be robust and colourful, and surely MPs will have to work around the clock to deliver the promised Utopia of their manifestos (or at least justify their obscene salaries and perks). However, how are the actual results prognostic of our democracy in general, and the next five years in particular? I am left with the following post-election questions.

Why did half the country not vote?

Interestingly, more people registered to vote in 2019 than in 2014, but fewer people actually voted in the end. News24 crunches the numbers and unpacks the stats. However, the official voter turnout of 66% is a misleading statistic, because out of an estimated 35.9 million eligible voters, 26.7m people registered to vote, but only 17.6m actually voted, meaning registered voter turnout was 66% but the actual voter turnout (full voter participation?) was about 48%. This is a serious number – half of our country does not participate in elections! Why?

Are the youth angry or apathetic?

I’m also surprised that the majority of unregistered voters were under 30 years old. Youth were terribly unrepresented in the last Parliament – only 23 MPs were under 35, a mere 6%. Youth unemployment is at an all-time high at 55% and has been called a ticking time-bomb. Why, then, did young people not express their anger and dissatisfaction at the polls? Is this indicative of youth apathy, learned helplessness, a form of resistance, or a rejection of formal electoral processes for other (more radical?) types of change-making activism?

What does a spoilt vote mean?

Spoilt votes accounted for 1.33% of all national ballots, a little less than 2014. But we don’t know why 235,472 people spoilt their vote. Was it a genuine mistake (eg marking two parties), or was it deliberate (eg a form of protest)? This is not an insignificant number – it’s the sixth highest share of votes. If, hypothetically, we assumed that spoilt votes were an expression of dissatisfaction at the options available, and “removed” seats in Parliament accordingly, we would have roughly six fewer MPs in Parliament this year. If anyone wants to lobby for this, you have my support. It’s an interesting idea, right? Imagine the money saved by having six fewer MPs in the next five years? Our Constitution allows us to go as low as 350 MPs, so we don’t have to fill all 400 seats.

Do people trust Cyril Ramaphosa, but not the ANC?

On the face of it, the ANC is the biggest loser in this election. Unsurprisingly, given the scandalous “nine lost years” under Jacob Zuma, they lost the most number of seats (from 249 to 230). In real numbers, they lost 1.4m voters.

But, and here’s the rub: over 600,000 citizens voted ANC on the national ballot but voted for another party on the provincial ballot. This means a significant number of people don’t trust the ANC to run their backyards, but are happy for Cyril Ramaphosa to run the country. In the minds of voters, a political party can be separated from its political leader. But can it? Can we trust a leader who might only be as capable, incorruptible, and visionary as the Cabinet he leads? Can Ramaphosa clean up the state rot and dead wood without committing political suicide? If the ANC attracted votes based on Ramaphosa, who are his potential successors that could foreseeably garner as much trust in future leadership battles, to claw back lost support?

Is the DA dying?

The party bled almost 500,000 voters, dropping from nearly 4.1 million in 2014 to just above 3.6 million now, but remains the official national opposition (but not in KZN, Mpumalanga and Limpopo). Is this the start of the gradual decline of the Democratic Alliance (DA) or have they reached a plateau in terms of their voter base?

Presumably, their black voters went for smaller parties or back to the ANC; while their conservative white voters went to the Freedom Front Plus (FF+). They could potentially win them back if Ramaphosa disappoints or is ousted early on; or if the FF+ fails to prevent land expropriation without compensation. However, this is dependent on the DA not self-immolating and having a clearer vision about what kind of liberal party it really is, and where and how it uses race as a proxy for disadvantage against its nebulous version of non-racialism. Without Zuma, the DA has to evolve beyond anti-ANC rhetoric if it wants to be a viable alternative.

Is right-wing nationalism back?

The dark horses of the election, the FF+ will now be fairly louder, having grown from a small quartet of MPs to a total of 10 seats to represent their 414,864 voters.

Some questions about their growth need unpacking: Will they successfully oppose land expropriation without compensation, Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), employment equity, and the erasure of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction at universities? Do they still harbour fantasies of an autonomous self-governing volkstaat of White Afrikaners? What do we make of their partnership with Peter Marais’ Coloured Empowerment Movement in the Western Cape? Will khaki shorts come back in fashion?

Keith Gottschalk and Dirk Kotze offer a good analysis of the dynamics influencing their growth.

Will we ever expropriate land without compensation?

Pulling towards the left, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) made the biggest inroads in this election. At 1.8 million votes, 700,000 more people now support the EFF, the official opposition party in Mpumalanga, North West and Limpopo. They built their election campaign on left-wing populism of “land and jobs now”, so no doubt, they will foreground the land question. However, so did the FF+ and they have promised to “Fight back” – so will they?

This is the hot potato for Rampahosa – will he embolden the ANC to proceed cautiously on land expropriation without compensation, and keep his promise to not jeopardise food security and economic development (thus satisfying the VF+ and DA, and investors) or will he give in to pressure from the EFF to swoop in recklessly. Ultimately, his actions will influence the next question of friends and enemies.

On what basis will coalitions happen?

If we get it right, coalition politics in a vibrant multiparty democracy such as ours will be a good thing for South Africans. There will be more accountability, transparency, robust debate, and diversity of views in Parliament and its committees. However, it also has the potential to descend into a politics of ego and thin ice, where coalition partners constantly hold each to ransom, use motions of no confidence unsparingly, and basically create unstable long-term conditions for good governance (we’ve seen this already in the Nelson Mandela Bay municipality). Also, most intriguingly, on what basis will coalitions be made in such an ideologically divided political mix? For example, what do the DA and EFF agree on, except common enemies?

Do small parties have a future?

Despite a crowded 48-option ballot paper, 95% of votes went to five parties; and a crummy 5% was split among nine parties. The remaining 34 parties got too few votes to enter Parliament.

There are lessons here for parties built on single issues, individual personalities, lack of grassroots mobilisation, or delusions of grandeur. If you are unable to offer anything substantially different from the bigger parties; or convincingly capture the imagination of your target market in large numbers, then don’t quit your day job!

For example, the new kids on the block, Andile Mngxitama’s Black First Land First (BLF), Kanthan Pillay’s Capitalist Party of SA (ZACP), Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s African Content Movement (ACM), and Irwin Jim’s Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP) didn’t get in; while Andries Tlouamma’s Agang SA and Themba Godi’s African People’s Convention (APC) lost their seats. Others, such as Shameen Thakur-Rajbansi’s Minority Front (MF) isn’t in Parliament but got one seat in the KZN provincial legislature. On the other hand, GOOD was built around the personality of Patricia de Lille; Al-Jamaah targeted Muslim voters, and the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) marketed a return to Christian values. Those three slimly made the cut.

So, this shows that personality cults and single-issue outfits do have some place in our politics; they are sometimes the last option for a confused voter who wants to make a strategic vote or vote their conscience. However, they are precarious in nature, have to be ultra-vocal to make an impact, and may only have a five-year shelf-life, leaving voters abandoned and politically homeless in the next election.

Do we still trust the IEC?

I’ve left the most serious question for last. And this is the fundamental question about the elections – because no matter how the results of an election pan out, analysis is pointless if we don’t trust the process that got us there.

Right now, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) is skating on thin ice after it failed to prevent double-voting at some stations. In general, the IEC is trusted. It consistently runs free, fair, transparent and credible national and provincial elections, and by-elections, and has not given internal or external observers reasons to doubt our democratic process. So, when Cope’s former MP Deidre Carter posted a video on Twitter of her ID being scanned at five different voting stations, and the indelible ink on her thumb being easily removed, it cast a shadow over the New Dawn. The results, overall, are still varied and representative enough for us to believe, on the whole, in their credibility – and the IEC says double-voting didn’t impact on seats.

But, if the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, than the one institution that deserves our undivided scrutiny, is the IEC. Because no matter the answers to my other nine questions, our answer to this one must always, always be a resounding “Yes!” DM

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