Dear compatriots, we are not alone. Across the globe, vast numbers of sane people have developed a primal distrust of politicians and what passes as politics in modern democracies, and often an outright aversion to them.
In 2012, Eurobarometer, the EU’s official research bureau, found general distrust, not only of formal politics in that region but also of public services – the postal system, health, education and transport.
There is a crisis of legitimacy, with the gulf between politicians and the real world and ordinary people seemingly unbridgeable.
Donald Trump reduced politics to Barnum & Bailey Circus theatrics; to threat, vulgarity and lawless excess. As did Jacob Zuma.
All people need, said the Romans, are “bread and circuses”. At least they got bread.
A fine example of civic incivility is playing out in the key metros of Joburg and Tshwane, the country’s capital city, as political parties engage in a private game of musical chairs while the cities fall apart.
The ANC and the DA, as well as the EFF, ActionSA, the ATM, Cope and all the other little pilot-fish parties hoping to get offcuts from the sharks – the whole lot of them are in the game.
“The way in which our democracies work wears people out at a terrifying rate. We have to take care that democracy itself doesn’t wear out,” Herman van Rompuy, president of the European Council, warned in the mid-2000s.
He was actually referring to the difficulty of finding real political talent that could go the distance, understand modern economies, find solutions to pressing problems and implement them swiftly, without deceit or corruption, and for the greater good.
Let’s just say the manner in which parties have behaved… serves for us as voters as an early warning system, flashing lights, flares up in the sky.
If you are a resident of Tshwane, Joburg or any other metro where politicians have more time to jostle for power than deliver services, you too will be worn out.
But the game is far from over. There is time to find ways to do this differently.
The future of politics in South Africa is coalition governments, and voters can view current events as a steep learning curve for us as taxpayers and citizens who require decent, caring government.
Where you put your X in 2024 does matter, and politicians and political parties can and will feel the wrath. And they know it.
Well, the ANC knows it; the smaller parties are too caught up in their moment of glory.
Political analyst Ralph Mathekga summed up the spectacle in Joburg and Tshwane succinctly this week.
“Voters are stranded,” he told John Maytham on Cape Talk radio.
And what makes it worse is that there are no consequences – for now.
“Why are they doing this? Because they can,” he said.
There is old wisdom from Central Africa, often attributed to Gandhi, that goes: “Whatever you do for me but without me, you do to me.”
And we are being done to, good and thorough.
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Let’s just say the manner in which parties have behaved – lying, cheating, committing fraud and betraying their own leaders – serves for us as voters as an early warning system, flashing lights, flares up in the sky.
Many of these smaller parties renting themselves out as proxies for bigger parties that have lost their majorities are less than a year old. They will come knocking at your door some time soon.
No amount of campaigning, colourful posters, public walkabouts or promises by dancing politicians in 2024 will mitigate what voters witness with their own eyes and experience in the daily traumas they are forced to navigate.
2024: it is going to be lit
A game changer for the upcoming national elections has been the Constitutional Court’s deadline for the Electoral Act to be amended. Parliament has missed the 28 February deadline so far (surprise) and President Cyril Ramaphosa has yet to sign it into law.
As we speak, the country’s Electoral Act as it stands is invalid.
In June 2020 the court found that the act as it stood was unconstitutional as only citizens who belonged to political parties could be elected to the National Assembly and provincial legislatures.
The political landscape is set to alter drastically as voters will be given a much wider choice of individual, young candidates, some of exceptional calibre, who will make themselves available for political office.
That’s when Parliament wakes up and Ramaphosa picks up his pen to sign off on a new era.
Already heavyweights like Songezo Zibi of the Rivonia Circle and Mmusi Maimane of Bosa, as well as independents like Zackie Achmat, have indicated they will stand. There will be many more exciting choices.
Read more in Daily Maverick: “Songezo Zibi says he will run for president as he tables a manifesto for a new society; more will follow”
The unsigned amendments to the Electoral Act already disadvantage these potential new leaders of a potentially different South Africa as there is no clarity on deposits and other requirements.
But there is no escaping that the law will change.
The ANC and the DA face their own internal leadership struggles, particularly in Gauteng, as former DA mayor Mpho Phalatse has indicated she will campaign to lead the party.
While citizens of other democracies lament, we have room for some optimism.
What makes us different is our Constitution, one of the youngest and most respected in the world. If you were not aware of how vital it has been in holding the country together and politicians and authorities to account so far, sorry for you.
The Constitution has allowed for democratic innovation and for citizens to hold a geriatric, sclerotic and insatiable former liberation party to account. The Zondo Commission uncovered it all.
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Also, do not forget that the Political Party Funding Act has introduced a strict regulatory framework for private funding of political parties. This, too, changes who pulls the strings where and how windfalls land in party kitties.
The gift of democracy we should cherish most is South Africa’s strong and highly effective collection of civil society organisations, which have consistently pushed back and indicated the displeasure of citizens.
One of Europe’s leading intellectuals, David van Reybrouck, in his 2016 Against Elections – The Case for Democracy, makes the argument that politics should “throw the doors open” – which is what we will be doing, in a sense, in 2024.
Wrote Van Reybrouck: “If you look at the decline in voter turnout and party membership, and at the way politicians are held in contempt, if you look at how difficult it is to form government, how little they can do and how harshly they are punished for it, if you look at how quickly populism, technocracy and anti-parliamentarism are rising, if you look at how more and more citizens are longing for participation and how quickly that desire can tip into frustration, then you realise we are up to our necks.”
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.