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Electoral escapades: Voters spoilt for choice with independent opportunists, radical racists and a governing party in the dog box

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Brij Maharaj is a geography professor at University of KwaZulu-Natal and an executive member of the South African Hindu Maha Sabha. He writes in his personal capacity.

Elections are a very humbling process for candidates and their political parties. They are forced from their high perches to bow, beg and battle for votes, especially in South Africa, where there is a view that politicians are ruining rather than ruling the country.

Over the centuries, many philosophers and political leaders have offered their insights on elections and democracy. Plato contended in The Republic: “Mankind will never see an end of trouble until… lovers of wisdom come to hold political power, or the holders of power… become lovers of wisdom. The immediate past president’s disdain for “clever people” is well known.

Joseph Stalin identified the most important agency in an election: “It is enough that the people know there was an election. The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything.” (Many in the ruling party have an historical leaning towards Stalinism).

According to Karl Marx: “The oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are to represent and repress them.” Former French President Charles de Gaulle contended that: In order to become the master, the politician poses as the servant.

American Theologian, James Freeman Clarke, argued that it was imperative to differentiate between different categories and calibre of leaders: “A politician thinks of the next election; a statesman thinks of the next generation.” 

German leader, Otto von Bismarck, said: “People never lie so much as after a hunt, during a war or before an election.” An anonymous wag said: “During a campaign the air is full of speeches – and vice versa.” 

Professor Benjamin Lichtenberg suggested that democracy refers to the “state of affairs in which you consent to having your pocket picked, and elect the best (wo)man to do it”.

According to Mahatma Gandhi: “Democracy must in essence… mean the art and science of mobilising the entire physical, economic and spiritual resources of all the various sections of the people in the service of the common good.”  Madiba maintained that the “victory of democracy in South Africa is the common achievement of all humanity”. 

An electoral system and its legal framework regulate the processes and procedures for elections as well as the competence of those who are elected, and the policies that are implemented – all of which collectively determine the successes and failures of government.

South Africa’s electoral system is based on a proportional representation (PR) system – the number of seats allocated depended on the percentage of the total votes, and the individuals chosen contingent on party lists’ hierarchies. Hence, servile, sycophantic subservience was paramount. A key question: How does the electorate hold those elected accountable? 

Regardless of the party in control, local government as the vehicle for delivery – and the level that is closest to the electorate – has been a dismal failure across the political spectrum. 

In the digital age, the voters communicate with councillors via smoke signals. Since the 2016 local government elections, there have been more than 4,000 service delivery protests (about access to water, sanitation, electricity, housing) across SA, which have been referred to as the “rebellion of the poor”. 

An analysis of the effectiveness and impact of local government in South Africa tells a dismal story of failure to deliver basic needs to the poor and the abdication of responsibility, with impunity. Most municipalities are maladministered and dysfunctional, staffed with incompetent, unqualified, recycled “deployees”, and are decimated by the cancer of corruption as resources allocated to provide basic services for the poor are redistributed to politically connected tenderpreneurs. 

Politicians are known for their thick skins as insults, slurs, slander attacks and threats are traded with opponents. The stakes are so high that in recent weeks there were eight politically linked murders, including three ward candidates. Three hundred high-risk areas where there may be a potential for conflict and violence during the elections were identified.  Additional police and SANDF soldiers will be deployed to these areas.

There are 504 political parties currently registered with the Electoral Commission (IEC), and 325 are participating in the 2021 local government elections. Beyond the dominant parties, an interesting feature of the upcoming poll is that there are over 900 independent candidates, and voters appear spoilt for choice. 

A closer examination will reveal that many of the independent candidates are disgruntled because they did not make their party’s PR lists, and some are in fact serial party-hoppers and floor-crossing opportunists. This is especially evident in wards in the eThekwini metro.

A 2013 EU study concluded that support for “independents has elements of a protest vote” by those who “tend to be more critical of the government and less satisfied with the way democracy works in their country”. However, when elected, independent candidates are more likely to form alliances and engage in horse-trading with political parties, beyond the purview of voters. 

After the 2016 local elections, the instability associated with coalition governing arrangements was evident in Tshwane, Johannesburg and the Nelson Mandela Bay municipalities. 

The 1 November elections are significant for several reasons. The IEC wanted to defer the ballot because of Covid risks. However, the apex court ruled that the commission’s statutory duty was to conduct “free and fair [elections] as circumstances reasonably permitted, and that our courts do not, save in rare and exceptional circumstances, have the power to relieve the commission of this duty”. Covid lockdown regulations were relaxed to Level 1, which cynics argued was for political rather than scientific reasons.

The ruling ANC, the dominant party since 1994 (although with a declining majority in subsequent national and local elections) is on the ropes in 2021, ravaged by corruption, infighting, attempted insurrection and economic sabotage, bordering on sedition. 

Its former president now has a criminal record for contempt, and the current secretary-general Ace Magashule is suspended and is facing more than 50 charges of “fraud, theft, corruption, money laundering and asbestos contraventions”.

Under normal circumstances, the major opposition parties would be licking their lips and sniffing at their chances to unseat the ANC. 

However, the official opposition, the DA, has revealed its true colours – that it is whiter than white and has shed prominent black leaders like Mmusi Maimane (“an experiment gone wrong”), Phumzile van Damme, Herman Mashaba, Funzela Ngobeni and Lindiwe Mazibuko. (Also, it is only a matter of time before South Africans will require a visa to visit the Cape as it awaits membership of the EU).  

In their Gucci uniforms, the EFF remains true to form, thriving on mayhem, bluster and radical, racist rhetoric in the post-VBS Bank era, and some leaders may have to switch from red to orange overalls. 

The IFP could be an influential party, especially in KZN – if only you can recall the name of its new leader. DM

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