Alet Janse van Rensburg

Cheer up, it's not all bad news

2017-03-03 08:46

With everything going on in South African politics at the moment, you would be forgiven to think that we are heading for a disaster.

There isn’t a lot of reason for optimism when your finance minister, the last bastion of fiscal responsibility and barrier to total state capture, is under constant threat of being replaced by someone compromised by corrupt forces.

Or when 17 million South Africans stand to go hungry because the department of social development couldn’t put a new grant distribution system in place in the two years they had to do so.

It is no laughing matter when your president’s only response to a list of grievances as long as his arm to his very presence in Parliament is to giggle dismissively.

One would be forgiven to think we are fast becoming a banana republic. But perhaps due to what a colleague likes to describe as South Africa’s innate ability to “self-correct”, there is hope. And it is to be found in the small and subtle changes in our voting behaviour.

South Africans have always voted according to racial and ethnic loyalties. It’s not that complicated and has nothing to do with racism. People are simply more inclined to trust their own kind and find safety in sticking to what they know.

As a recent article in the New Yorker explains, “facts don’t change our minds”. The article explains what researchers have termed “myside bias”, a concept that explains why humans are quite good at noticing the weaknesses in others’ arguments, but are blind when it comes to our own positions. In fact, trying to convince us of the opposite position often results in an even stronger stance on our original positions.

No wonder that the latest Afrobarometer survey found that South Africans don’t like it when opposition parties criticise the ANC. While eight in 10 citizens report poor government performance their top policy priority, only 37% say that another political party could solve the problem. People don’t trust what they don’t know.

Against this backdrop it is interesting to observe what has happened to the ANC’s support in the last three elections, even in traditional party strongholds such as the North West, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. While the ANC still governed 162 out of the country’s 269 municipalities after last year’s local elections, one has to look at the shift in the voting margins to get the real picture of what happened in the elections. Have a look at the map from News24’s election site.

The purple indicates all the local municipalities where opposition parties gained a larger proportion of the vote than it had in the 2011 elections. The green indicates where the ANC’s support increased. That is a lot of purple. When you break it down to ward level, the picture becomes even more illuminating. Slowly but surely the opposition is chipping away at the ANC’s support.

It mostly wasn’t a case of more people voting for opposition parties, but rather of voters staying away. Many of these voters previously cast their ballot for the ANC and by staying away therefore allowed opposition parties to win a larger proportion of the total votes.

This explains how the ANC lost ground, despite people not necessarily trusting the opposition. Staying away was the people’s way of showing their unhappiness with the ruling party and importantly, this is the first step towards deciding to vote for a different party. While many voters were not yet ready to turn their backs on the ANC, they are clearly not happy with how things are going. In the metros this dissatisfaction was enough to turn the tide.

People are starting to vote on issues, not just blind loyalty anymore. This is a very good sign that our democracy is maturing.

Another good sign is that where the ANC did lose, we did not see a single instance of violent conflict. Many people have uttered concern about what will happen the day the ANC loses power. Images of mass riots and desperate attempts by leaders to hold on to power have been conjured. Yet, we did not see a single sign of this after the local elections, despite the ANC losing in four major metros and many ward councillors losing their jobs.

It is also heartening to see that coalition governments are working. Despite the opposition reaching a compromise over ideological differences, there was deep skepticism over whether the EFF and the DA would be able to work together on a practical level. And yet, not a single coalition has dissolved and in many cases the two parties work together well, serving the interests of the local communities. This might be harder to achieve at a national level, but the fact that it is working locally, means there is potential.

What all of this means is that our democracy is still working. In fact, it is becoming stronger and more mature. The courts are still working, civil society is more engaged than ever before and there are a lot of good people working in and outside of government to make our country succeed. Our job is to support them and not to stare ourselves blind into all that is wrong.

Chins up, there is still hope.

- Alet Janse van Rensburg is opinions editor of News24.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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