According to the Afrobarometer 2021 survey, two-thirds (67%) of South Africans would be willing to give up elections if a non-elected government could provide security, housing, and jobs. This is a frightening statistic given how long people fought for the right to vote, and broader democratic gains, and the monumental sacrifices that were made to realise these aspirations.
The turnout at the 1 November 2021 local government elections could be understood to correlate with this disenchantment with democracy. South Africa has over 42,6 million people eligible to vote. Of those only 26 million are registered to vote and only 12 million actually voted. These numbers dovetail with those of people who would be willing to give up on democracy in exchange for personal and economic security.
However, we should not be too quick to assume that abstentionism is, across the board, a rejection of electoral politics rather than a rejection of the parties currently on the ballot papers.
Although it is almost ubiquitous for commentators to tout the low turnout as voter apathy, the vast scale of collective abstentionism is a result of a poverty of ideas within our political parties. Over 300 political parties stood for the 1 November local elections but not one captured the national imagination.
It is also a repudiation of a political system that is not working to address the aspirations of the majority. And, of course, it is a repudiation of the political leaders in office who have completely failed the people and who seem unable, unwilling and incapable of delivering on the most basic and urgent of needs.
Voters not thinking they can choose differently and vote for another political party other than the one they have normally voted for – in most cases the ANC – can be understood as a symptom of trauma. South Africa suffers from massive collective trauma as a result of our violent and repressive past, which has never been dealt with.
A lot of black people, even educated middle-class people, have an ineradicable fear that voting for a “white party” would see the return of an apartheid-type of governance where black people would again be oppressed.
The DA has failed to recognise this fear and seems to have done everything in its power to rubbish these fears by refusing to acknowledge them and to recognise that race still plays a major role in people’s lives. The DA’s continued rejection of policies like BEE and affirmative action, without offering alternatives that recognise people’s pain and trauma, play into this deeply held fear that white people want to turn back the clock.
This fear is compounded by the way that black leaders from Lindiwe Mazibuko to Mmusi Maimane, Patricia de Lille, Herman Mashaba and Phumzile van Damme have been treated by the party. For many black people, seeing this treatment reinforces their fears. The DA has been massively punished for this at the polls with Herman Mashaba’s new party, ActionSA, and Patricia de Lille’s Good party both taking votes from the DA.
Rather than trying to grow the black vote, the DA has instead tried to focus on the wrong demographic – the conservative Afrikaner vote, where it has no prospects of any real growth. This has seen the DA become more demagogic, sound more anti-black and shift further and further to the right, sometimes even espousing Trumpian ideas and embracing views and positions that would have been anathema to the party a few election seasons ago.
This shift to the right in an attempt to win the conservative Afrikaner vote hasn’t paid off for it as the conservative Afrikaner voters have seen through this expediency and gone back into the FF+ laager, which they see as better representing their views.
Never has the ANC been so weak, disorganised, beset by internal discord and in such complete disarray. Yet, the DA was unable to capitalise on this. It squandered a massive opportunity in these elections. All the DA had to do was push its message of the technocratic and administrative success it has achieved in the municipalities that it governs. Yet, the DA’s campaigning spoke more about the ANC and ActionSA than its own achievements.
Moreover, the DA seems incapable of not scoring own goals – after the Phoenix debacle, Cliffgate and the lack of contrition following these mishaps, you would be hard pressed to think the DA was not deliberately trying to make black voters, and even liberal and progressive whites, to not vote for it.
A lot of political parties talk progressive politics in this country, with the ANC and EFF getting the most airtime. However, none of them actually live up to their progressive rhetoric. The ANC’s neo-liberal policies in government have been anything but progressive. The EFF wants nothing more than to get its hands on the state coffers for its leaders to live in the lap of luxury. There is no genuine commitment to uplift the lives of the majority.
Most middle-class black people in this country will not vote for the EFF. Most understand that despite its language of being progressive, what it actually stands for is more corruption and kleptocracy, the VBS looting of the most vulnerable in society is a case in point.
The political field is open to a genuinely progressive party. However, none of the small left parties in the South African landscape has so far been able to capture the imagination of SA voters.
The black middle-class in this country is also screaming out for a political party that represents them and their aspirations. The ANC under Mbeki was that party, however, the toll of the Zuma years and the accompanying anti-intellectualism, the rejection of “clever blacks”, the corruption, breakdown of infrastructure and lack of service delivery has left a major demographic homeless.
The DA under Maimane was becoming that home, but the unholy trio of Natasha Mazzone, John Steenhuisen and Helen Zille put paid to that as they followed a disastrous strategy, which has seen the DA squander the gains that it had made under Maimane.
The field is also wide open for a party that can offer the black middle-class a credible alternative, perhaps that is why Herman Mashaba’s conservative-populist ActionSA has done so well in these elections among the black middle classes, as they feel that they might have finally found a political home. DM