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Opinionista

Why South Africa’s democracy glass is both half-full and half-empty

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Ian von Memerty is a Zimbabwean-born South African entertainer, actor, singer, musician, writer, director and television presenter.

Last week, more than half of all South African voters decided not to vote. Welcome to how democracy actually grows.

Aside from a solid win for the biggest party in the country, the Sahara Party (Stay at Home and Rant About All), the real political parties all lost something in last week’s local government elections. There have been doomsayers and cheerleaders – both are wrong and both are right. The glass is both half-full and half-empty – for everyone. 

The ANC: Glass half-full 

The ANC government has recently faced the harrowing humiliation of the Zondo Commission, the embarrassment of Jacob Zuma’s danceathon to deny justice, the economic devastation of Covid-19, and the daily reminder of its incompetence, with rolling power cuts. Despite this it still won the majority of municipalities outright. Take the Western Cape out of the equation and it is still the majority party in the country, and its grip on the electorate in six of the nine provinces is absolute and unshaken.  

Sure, the metros weren’t great for the ANC, but that is not a new thing. Considering that, aside from an actual civil war, things couldn’t have been  much worse for Cyril Ramaphosa and Co, and yet it remains the biggest party, by far. Even if it does or doesn’t want to make a deal with Julius, the prodigal son, there are others who are happy to follow the Yellow Brick Road. So the biggest party in the country has still got a good run.  

The ANC: Glass half-empty 

History is not on its side. By the time the next national election comes around it will have been in power for more than 30 years, so the ANC knows that its days are numbered. No dominant party at the time of independence survives much past the 30-year mark (Zimbabwe, with Zanu-PF still in power after 41 years, is an exception because of gross election interference). 

The ANC has been losing ground in every election for 20 years. Young South Africans no longer consider the ANC as their political church. The ANC is living off its fat (cat) reserves. It is not growing, it is shrinking and that has been its election story for quite a while now. In 2009 the party got 69% of the vote; this year it got 46%, losing one-third of its support.

The ANC is already splintering, while the EFF is just the first splinter party to really take root. But they know that Zuma and his gang of RET opportunists are another split and that there will be more. As more buccaneers find themselves on a shrinking ship with several holes below the waterline, watch the gangplanks.

Jordan Griffiths’ excellent piece in Daily Maverick breaks down all the challenges the ANC faces in the short term. 

The DA: Glass half-full 

The year 2019 was the worst for the party. Its support plummeted and then Athol Trollip and Herman Mashaba, (ex)mayors for the party, and Mmusi Maimane, the leader of the party, all resigned on one day. What party could withstand a political car bomb like that? It appears the DA can. It stopped the voter haemorrhage, and increased its percentage share from 2019, won its first municipality in KZN, and still runs 23 municipalities, with outright control of 11. 

Which means it could get back on the growth path, and with more than 20% of the vote is still the de facto opposition party. Despite much myopia in the media, it has substantial national support, across all racial groups (say this very softly, so you don’t anger any journalists). 

The DA: Glass half-empty

The DA has always campaigned on the policy of “govern well, win votes”. In Cape Town, Midvaal, Kouga etc that worked again this year and many of its crown jewels still retain their lustre. But with the loss of too many outright majorities, including Cape Agulhas (the top-ranked municipality), the party has to face a harsh reality. It is not enough to be efficient and productive – elections are about how people feel. And if they don’t feel valued and a vital part of the process they will drive on their newly tarred roads and vote for someone else, who makes them feel important.  

The DA also has to own its name and its history. An alliance is defined as “a group of countries, parties or people who work together”. The Democratic Alliance needs to take off the emperor’s clothes of “one nation, one people” and proudly wear the flag of reality: “one nation, many people”.

Historically, the DA grew from its pitiful 1.73% in 1994 (when it was the Democratic Party), one constituency at a time: first English-speaking whites, then Afrikaans-speaking whites, then Asian and coloured South Africans, then black urban South Africans. If those constituencies do not feel important, then the FF+, Good and ActionSA etc. with a few carefully chosen pressure points can throttle the DA’s growth and support, squeezing them until they are blue in the face (geddit?). 

Identity politics is a fact. (Personally, I think politics has always been about identity). We only have to look at the results this year in South Africa (and across the world) to see… the facts. If everyone is using identity politics, and growing stronger because of it, get with the programme. The DA is a multi-constituency party, and it can be that without sacrificing its “ideals”. The party needs to own it, nurture it and exploit it or it will find itself superglued with a “pale male” label. (Let’s face it, Helen Zille has a bigger set of balls than almost anyone else in the fight, so her gender doesn’t change the label).  

The EFF: Glass half-full 

The good news for the EFF is that it is here to stay. The breakout party of 2016 has proved that it knows how to set up a national party, knows how to campaign, how to manipulate media coverage and how to survive some very choppy waters. It is not the UDM, or Cope, or the Independent Democrats (Good in old shirts). The party is more than a one-election  wonder, and with a healthy growth from 2016 must be feeling very pleased.  

Even better news for the EFF: it is not in control anywhere (even if it is part of coalition governments) and so its members don’t have to prove that they know anything about the actual processes of government. They can still sing the same headline-grabbing song, “We are the voice of the oppressed, the fist of righteous wrath, and everyone else is a heartless, corrupt bastard.” 

The EFF: Glass half-empty 

The bad news for Jules’ Mules is… their growth has slowed down. If they cannot effectively poach large numbers of dissatisfied ANC voters in a year like this, then when can they ever effectively go voter shoplifting? 

And they are not getting the votes to gain control – anywhere. When the DA had a similar percentage of the national vote that the EFF has now, it had already won Midvaal and Cape Town. And the EFF is still a long way from winning anything – anywhere. 

It appears that with Zuma in and out hospital and/or jail and or/court the current incarnation of the ANC is not as keen to deal with the Red Rebels. The Smurfs will have nothing to do with them. If the Simpsons also won’t speak to them, they will just be Little Red Robin Hood – shouting in the woods. 

South Africa: Glass half-full 

The number of coalitions ? The growing number of smaller parties? More non-voters? Oh woe! Oh instability! Oh, oh, oh – we are all stuffed! Except, coalitions do not mean we are stuffed. No political party prefers to be in a coalition rather than control. And the media love coalitions – they can terrify us every day with the unseen perils of “instability”.

Welcome to the real world. Aside from the US with its two huge parties and its yo-yo politics, the universal trend in established democracies is more parties with fewer votes. And we are showing signs of being a real-world democracy. We will only know if South Africa is a viable democracy when the ANC loses power, and that is in the not-too-distant future. 

And this year’s break-out party, ActionSA may survive and slowly grow like the EFF, making things even more democratic (and confusing) – with even more options.

Most importantly, the ANC has not tried to steal, subvert, shatter or shutter the election process, so far. This fact alone is well worth trumpeting, praising and raising culturally appropriated ululations for. Does the ANC practise dirty politics? Yes, but who doesn’t? South Africans know the truth about who we voted for, and Nkosi Sikelel – that is a glorious and wondrous thing in post-colonial Africa. 

South Africa: Glass half-empty 

When voters don’t care enough to vote, that means they feel powerless. Unimportant. Irrelevant. And the terrible voter turnout should be ringing alarm signals – disempowered and dissatisfied populations of poor people do not make for stable nations.

It also seems that this election was the most ineptly run election since 1994 – why are we getting worse at this instead of better? Can you imagine the chaos if 75% of the country had tried to vote? 

But… drum roll… welcome to the three-humped, five-legged camel that is democracy. Coalitions are going to keep on growing. We could end up like Germany or Denmark! But, then again, we could turn out to be Italy or India. Democracy is like the people who vote – contradictory, impulsive and erratic, so say farewell to the dream of the single-minded efficiency  of a one-party government like Singapore, Turkey or China.  

Democracy is messy, but if elections are confusing and the results are a mixed bag, isn’t that better than Bolsonaro’s Brainless Braggadocio, Trump’s Tin-Pot Triumphalism or Hungary’s Ham-Fisted Heartlessness? DM

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