Maverick Citizen


When the election dust has settled, what’s left is hope for a better future


Tony Balcomb is a senior research associate at the School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Democracy may feed envy but it is inspired by hope. And hope is surely stronger than all the other visceral emotions that accompany it.

We have just witnessed one of the wonders of democracy in action. The mighty have been brought low, the low have been lifted up and the mediocre have remained, well, mediocre. The process was expertly handled by the Electoral Commission and the ruling party has graciously accepted the beating it received at the hands of the electorate. All very exemplary.  

But here’s the thing we need to remind ourselves of – the last thing that people use when they vote is their heads. Beneath all the fancy “the people have spoken” rhetoric is the seething reality of resentment, anger and revenge. 

As I looked at the leader board I experienced no small measure of schadenfreude – that visceral feeling of pleasure at the suffering that the ruling party was experiencing. At last they are receiving their just deserts! But not nearly as much as the outright sweetness of revenge that Jacob Zuma must have been feeling. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Elections dashboard

One of the most insightful observations that Alexis de Tocqueville made of modern democracy was that it was the engine of envy. While it offers people the means to become equal, it also continually withholds that equality. It awakens the passion for equality without ever being able to completely satisfy it. It escapes us even as we grasp it. It is “close enough to be known… but far enough never to be savoured”. 

The idea of democracy comes about precisely because we are not equal. We know we are not equal because the system dictates that we continually compare ourselves with those who have more than we do and not those who have less. Just as it dictates that there will always be people richer, cleverer, more powerful and more successful than we are. That is the nature of democracy because that is the nature of freedom. 

The GDP of South Africa may be more than many other countries in the south but that does not mean that South Africa is not the most unequal society in the world. The vote of the domestic worker on 29 May was as powerful as the vote of her employer but when she came to work on the 30th she might have had even more reason to resent them than she did on the 29th because, on the one hand, she was being led to believe that she had as much power as her employer, while on the other there was little to persuade her that her circumstances would change in the foreseeable future.

Of course, that vote would have given her more reason to hope that one day she would be equal with her employer – or else why would she have voted? And this is what Tocqueville failed to see – democracy may feed envy but it is inspired by hope. And hope is surely stronger than all the other visceral emotions that accompany it. Strong enough to make us believe that in the end good will prevail over evil. We are saved by hope. We live in hope. The hope that in the next two weeks our leaders will find each other sufficiently well to take our democracy one step further into a stable future. 

The hope that although the mendacity of Zuma has been unleashed and potentially multiplied by these elections there has also been released goodwill, patience, forgiveness and reasonableness. Surely these will cancel out the negatives and eventually bring us all an equality sufficient to curb our envy without quenching our desire to strive for more. DM


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