If called upon to describe the time of South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, I am certain that those who lived and experienced the period leading to the watershed elections, the two days of ballot casting and post-election activities, are likely to borrow the iconic opener from Charles Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities.
I was a teenager who did not bother much about the euphoria that was a “democratic vote” as I believed that nothing would change. I read a lot at that time and this led me to believe that the promises by political parties, especially the ruling party which appeared to be in a scramble for power, were just misty paintings of a castle in the sky that would disappear once all the euphoria had settled. I owe my enlightenment for that period to Bab’ Ngcobo, a man I had come to stay with during my high school years. He taught me to listen and critique what politicians promise.
The period – for those who can recall – was marred by “us and them” political-speak, promises of lives “like those of white men”. We can never forget the political intolerance and the violence it brought. Worse was the doubt about the process of voting, the monitoring and the impartiality of results.
In his seminal opener, Dickens, in his plot leading to the French Revolution, wrote: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
This is a fitting description of the period we are experiencing in South Africa’s sixth local government elections. Although not as highly decisive as the national elections that set the tone for which party will run national affairs and put forward the presidential candidate, the final outcome of this year’s municipal elections are the best and yet the worst of our time since the advent of democracy. These results will determine whether we are living through the age of wisdom or are stuck in the age of foolishness. This is the time we will witness whether we are heading towards an era of certainty or one of doubt. These elections will tell future generations a tale of our resolve as a people.
The first resolve is that of deciding whether to cut the umbilical cord of abuse or to stay under years of neglect, being witnesses to unabated corruption and other political misnomers by the party that they had entrusted with their vote for years and termed it their “liberator” (although records will prove that this is a self-given title by the ANC).
In the run-up to the elections, I was invited to provide analysis for a television station. This was because the community of Pimville, Soweto, had shut down the voter registration station in protest. Their grievance was that they have had no electricity for 14 months. In my analysis, I asked how come an area with a politically mandated councillor is living in a state of being forgotten? Pimville was no exception.
In certain areas, those who were campaigning for the ANC were seen to be chased away by the communities: even the president of the party (and head of state) had to, at some point, cancel his visit to communities.
During the weekend of the special vote, I drove through the townships of Soweto – debris was strewn on main roads and one of the busiest intersections for public transport in Soweto (corner Mooki Africa and Sofasonke Road in Orlando East), remains closed in protest. This has been the scene in many other areas around the country.
To compound matters, there have been murders of contesting ward councillors. A day before the elections, Police Minister Bheki Cele stated that KwaZulu-Natal had “128 high-risk voting stations (which) will be monitored”.
To borrow from Dickens, it is our worst of times.
It is also our best of times in that we had a record number of people standing as independent candidates. The electorate is not only beholden to parties and their rhetoric. This is our best time to test electoral mandates outside of party political structures which have held South Africa to ransom.
We know that the ruling ANC has used the issue of social grants, food parcels (via government departments), late delivery of services such as electricity, water and other infrastructure as electioneering machinery. Having independent candidates is best for our politics and these elections will serve to confirm that.
The second critical resolve that will speak volumes to future generations is that of whether we moved to the season of light and got stuck in the season of darkness. For me, this talks to the independence of our electoral system: does it move us into the light or keep us – like the state electricity entity – in the dark in favour of the status quo.
In the run-up to these elections, amid all the chaos that ensued about the ANC missing the submission date for its candidate list and the court case involving one of the contesting political parties, ActionSA, I remembered the words uttered by one political commentator about the Electoral Commission. Scathing and yet horrifying, the commentator remarked, “the independence of the Electoral Commission (IEC) will be tested the day the ANC loses elections”. Just like the 1994 elections, I believe that these local government elections are a litmus test for the IEC.
In the run-up to 1994, we experienced a roll-out campaign of voter education, something I believe was lacking in these elections. What has been glaring for me is the lack of educating the electorate on the importance of using the vote as responsible citizens, and how this can help make their communities better. It is no wonder we experienced a low voter turnout – of course, this will be brushed aside.
The court battles between the IEC and some political parties, especially the issue of the naming of ActionSA on the ballot paper, has raised conspiracy theories, and experience has consistently shown how such theories are easily held as the gospel truth by swayed masses.
On voting day, there were reports of unavailability of ballots, opening of boxes by an official – of this, I am sure, we are going to hear more complaints – and the technology not being up to standard. The latter is something I experienced when the scanner first printed the sequence number showing me registered in another voting district kilometres away from where I stay. Upon the second scanning, the correct voting district came up.
As the votes continue to be tallied and the results trickle in, those who voted are eagerly looking at an improved quality of life – an age of wisdom, an epoch of belief, a season of light and a spring of hope.
However, multitudes, which include the 74% of unemployed youth, might be seeing themselves living through what they reckon are their worst of times – an age of foolishness, an epoch of incredulity, a season of darkness and a winter of despair.
Whatever the outcome, these elections proved to be a Dickensian moment for South Africa and the hope is that the parties, Electoral Commission and the electorate reflect on that as we prepare for the national elections in 2024. DM