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Despondency about the ANC, not voter apathy, killed South Africa’s electoral system

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Thamsanqa D Malinga is director at Mkabayi Management Consultants; a writer, columnist, and political commentator, as well as author of Blame Me on Apartheid and A Dream Betrayed.

Let’s face it, the ANC has killed South Africa’s trust in the electoral system. Like ‘councillors’ who were imposed on the people by the Black Local Authorities Act of the apartheid era, the ANC has not delivered services.

It was in the turbulent 1980s, in 1982 to be exact, that the apartheid South Africa Parliament passed the Black Local Authorities Act. This act “provided for the establishment of a series of local government structures similar to those operating in the South African apartheid ‘white areas’. For the first time under apartheid, African black residents of urban locations gained something like autonomy. Although the African black race did not have access to Parliament, this act gave the racial group some local township power.”

Although very young during that era, I remember how some people in the township rejected these township “councillors”. They were called stooges who were representing the apartheid regime. This went as far as having their properties burned. On the other side, those who opposed the system were seen as being sympathetic to the United Democratic Front (UDF) as well as the rising South African National Civic Organisation (Sanco), the former being a civil society body that was a front for the then-banned African National Congress (ANC). The latter, on the other hand, was a body of civic organisations that vigorously opposed the Local Authorities Act and would later throw its weight behind the ANC.

What was interesting to note amid the implementation and opposition to the Black Authorities Act is that there was at first interest in voting for black councillors as people felt that they would have some form of representation. Later as the system became clear, people started staying away from voting for these “stooge” councillors.

Over the years as one looked back in reflection, it became clear that voter apathy that was happening at the time of the black apartheid councillors was not apathy but despondency at the condescending act that pretended to give them power while being kept as subservient beings. Residents stayed away not because they did not like the councillors, after all, these were people “chosen” among them – albeit largely not by them. These councillors did not bring about the changes they hoped for because they had no power after all.

This was compounded by the fact that those who openly criticised the system were labelled collaborators of the UDF and its partners, and by default, the ANC. The result was often harassment by the police or ill-treatment by municipal officials working at the council offices. As a result, despondency towards the Black Authorities’ “elections” grew and anger and rampage multiplied.

The government’s reaction towards people’s feelings about the Black Authorities’ elections in the townships entrenched a sense of despondency. The elections became a useless process to participate in as they gave no power and the situation remained unchanged, and criticising the process attracted punishment.

The Black Authorities’ “elections” and the feeling of hopelessness it cast on our parents and grandparents in the 1980s all over South Africa can be used to juxtapose the sentiment of the recent local government elections in the country.

The local government elections of 2021 were marred by the lowest voter turnout in the history of South Africa with fewer than 50% of eligible voters casting their vote. This is a sad reality for a country that is barely three decades into democracy – the same country that was once called the “hope of Africa”.

Most commentators and news platforms spoke of “voter apathy”, a term we hear every year elections are held as voter numbers continue to drop. Are South Africans lazy to vote? The same South Africans who were part of long queues in 1994 and some of them descendants of those who stood in those long queues and growing up being taught about how important it is to vote? That is just absolute balderdash. By perpetuating the narrative of voter apathy we are entrenching the popular insult that “South Africans are lazy to work”.

During his party’s press conference at the Independent Election Commission’s results operations centre, the leader of the red brigade (the Economic Freedom Fighters) Julius Malema, when asked about voter apathy and how this should be blame all political parties should take,  responded, “saying people voted by their absence is an elitist statement and detached from reality”. Malema was not far off the mark.

So, what monster do we call this low voter turnout and to whom do we give ownership? The answer is simple – look no further than the governing party.

The “broad church movement” and self-acclaimed “liberator” has, like the apartheid government, made a sham of the democratic process and people’s right to vote. For close to three decades, South Africans have put their trust, using the electoral system, in the ANC and what did they get in return? Well, look no further than my introduction about the Black Local Authorities Act.

Voter apathy versus voter despondency is a highly debatable topic and blaming the ANC might not sit well with most people. However, we need to also revisit history to understand my contention that South Africa is experiencing voter despondency as a result of the governing party’s belittling of South Africans.

The ANC, like its atrocious predecessors, has used the electoral system to be condescending about the electorate. People cast their votes for the party and for 27 years, like the black authorities of the apartheid era, the ANC did not deliver. Instead, the party used people’s votes to make itself the party to which South Africans are beholden and should, by any means, reward it with votes. So patronising has the ANC been, that it declared that it “will rule until Jesus comes back”.

Not only has the party had a sense of superiority over South Africans with an entitlement to their vote, with nothing to show in return, but the ANC has also gone as far as labelling those that speak out against it as “clever blacks” or “702 blacks” – so-called after the radio station 702 which is known for having listeners who speak out against the party.

“Clever black?” – wow!  I know that I would also not dare cast my vote for anyone who throws unsavoury labels at me when I complain about how the promises made in exchange for my vote have not been met.

Let’s face it, the ANC has killed South Africa’s trust in the electoral system. Like “councillors” who were imposed on the people by the Black Local Authorities Act of the apartheid era, the ANC has not delivered services. The same with those who opposed the Black Local Authorities Act and its “councillors” being labelled and harassed, the ANC has called people names for speaking out against it.

Voter apathy versus voter despondency is a highly debatable topic and blaming the ANC might not sit well with most people. However, we need to also revisit history to understand my contention that South Africa is experiencing voter despondency as a result of the governing party’s belittling of South Africans.

Talking about why he wrote his memoir Out of Quattro: From Exile to Exoneration, former freedom fighter Luthando Dyasop writes:

“It is my wish to shed light on the fact that the political and economic crisis we see playing itself out presently in South Africa has its foundation laid in exile. The ANC security department made sure that fear of them instilled in the general membership meant they could do anything with impunity; there was no accountability or transparency; and any dissenting voice was, at best, imprisoned or, at worst, would end up dead. Then elitism thrived; it was just a matter of waiting in the wings for the ultimate prize – being in power in a well-developed South Africa – to accommodate their expensive taste for finer material things. All at the detriment of the ideals enshrined in the Freedom Charter.

“The ANC deviated from the right path while we were in exile: the foundation for a democratic society based on ethics, integrity and accountability was replaced by elitism, impunity, self-aggrandisement, greed and corruption… The first casualty there was democracy… And so goes the story of the ANC returning home to continue where it had left off. But first, it had to take care of the loose ends, like denigrating and framing as ‘dissidents’ and ‘askaris’ those who were posing the threat of exposing the wicked practices of some of the leadership.”

It is not only Dyasop who writes as such about the ANC and how it thrives on elitism, lack of accountability and doing things with impunity, among others. I believe that his statement drives the point home that South Aftricans stayed away from the polls because they are not lazy to go and cast their votes. Instead, South Africans have rejected the electoral system as a result of close to three decades of the ANC’s “self-aggrandisement, greed and corruption” and their dissenting voices have been labelled as “lackeys of the whites”.

It is a pity that the only hope that South Africans have to have their confidence restored in the electoral system is the return of the sandal-clad, bearded biblical man. DM

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  • The quotation from Luthando Dysastop is instructive, yet , I think understates the egregious ramifications of what occurred in Quattro and other ANC camps. He notes that torture and the commission of atrocities was routine.
    However, in the brave new South Africa those who had engaged in these criminal activities and those who had sedulously campaigned to cover it up ( A Sachs and others ) managed to convince a credulous and hopelessly naive audience that they would be the architects of a new human rights order.
    Koestler and George Orwell would have been mesmerised at the sheer audacity of it all.

  • Errol, you mean Justice Albie Sachs who was maimed by the apartheid state when his car was bombed? Or the priest, Father Michael Lapsley, who received an apartheid letter-bomb in Zimbabwe? Or Bheki Mlangeni, ANC human rights lawyer of Soweto, killed by a walkman bomb? Or Anton Lubowski? Victoria Mxenge hacked to death outside her home? David Webster felled by a shotgun? Fort Calata and others who’s car disappeared off the road outside Cradock in the dead of night? Ahmed Timol thrown to his death from an interrogation room window at police HQ? Trevor Manuel who survived two years of solitary confinement torture? They all have names.

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