Cape Town - The latter few weeks of election 2014, have seen South Africans reeling from an assault on their comfort zone when it comes to voting.
Twenty years of liberation and loyalty to the ANC is being tested - perhaps for the first time as the cumulative effects of weeks of Nkandla-induced questioning of President Jacob Zuma and his senior leadership team finally takes its toll.
Furthermore, the myriad of scandals involving senior government ministers and officials, on-going poor service delivery, dithering economic policy, growth stagnation, a floundering labour relations regime beset by inter-union rivalries and factionalism is now beginning to make this period of our politics the most uncomfortable ever for the ruling Alliance.
The discomfort for the ANC has, in recent days, been compounded by calls to voters from former intelligence minister and ANC stalwart Ronnie Kasrils and other hitherto ANC-supporting ‘elders’ to either spoil their ballot or cast a vote for a smaller party – but not the ANC (or DA).
Election day, 7 May, is therefore likely to be a very uncomfortable day – not only for the ANC as it desperately hopes it can muster a face-saving 60% of the vote, but more importantly, the discomfort will also be felt by so many ordinary voters left in a quandary as to who they should support.
The discomfort-factor is a symptom of a country whose electorate simply don’t know how to use democratic choice as a result of having no precedent from history to assist them in their dilemma. Indeed, it is almost as if South Africans enjoy democracy – at least on paper – but in practice they don’t know what to do with it.
Critically, what the country lacks is the simple acceptance of a political culture, which punishes incumbents who don’t perform by removing them from office.
The corollary of this is that the political system evolves sufficiently to offer voters a choice of attractive enough alternative political parties so that they can ‘swing’ their vote should they be dissatisfied.
South Africa has absolutely no such a political precedent to fall back upon. Clearly, in the post-1994 period, there has never been remotely any electoral threat to the hegemony of the ANC. And, in the previous 50 years of National Party rule, that party dominated in much the same way the ANC does amongst its core constituency.
Simply put, South Africa’s modern democracy suffers from a key flaw. It has yet to experience a peaceful transition at the ballot box from one political party to another.
And, as dominant, nationalistic and ethnocentric political forces have constantly commanded much of our political discourse, it is extremely difficult for South Africans to even contemplate voting against their party of historical loyalty even if it does severely disappoint them.
The call, therefore, from Kasrils and Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge et all epitomises the current milieu of an electorate with a heightened level of discomfort and even distress with the ruling ANC yet are unable to make the leap towards endorsing an alternative political force. Witness Zwelenzima Vavi whose tangible level of discomfort in “supporting” the ANC in this election makes him something of an icon of voter discomfort in the May 7th poll.
However, Kasril’s call for a spoilt ballot clearly shows a fundamental lack of historical experience in developing a more mature ability to “swing” their vote and an inability to transcend to a modern era of democratic politics where the simple choice should be to ditch the non-performing incumbents for the next best option.
While this group is numerically insignificant, they do however signify the level of distress that many voters are currently experiencing.
Unable to divorce judging a government on its poor performance from their loyalty to the party has created a period of political and policy inertia within the country that does no-one any good, least of all voters who are critical yet cannot bring themselves to act upon it.
In fairness to the ANC and while high levels of dissatisfaction persist, a majority of voters will rationalise that they have been well served by the current administration – especially when it comes to the redistributive benefits millions of predominantly black voters have received through access to housing, basic infrastructure, social income grants, BEE benefits and public service jobs.
The “good story” has been rightly praise-sung by the ANC in their campaign strategy and voting against this might be seen as foolish – or even downright risky.
In other words, delivery from the ANC has been remarkably effective in locking in voter loyalty – over and above the historical liberation-induced loyalty that forms the backbone of voter choices at the South African ballot box.
The question though remains how long will South Africans bury their distaste for all that’s wrong in our society with a more critical approach to political decision-making at the ballot box. Creating a body of “swing-voters” in the South African context becomes the central challenge to our democracy if it is to truly mature.
So Kasrils et al perhaps most clearly highlight an early stage in our political evolution despite their flawed call to reduce multi-party political choice to the politics of the spoilt ballot. In a sense, they do represent a greater shift to ‘swing’ votes becoming a more important constituency.
They certainly also represent an increasing intellectual disdain for current ANC practices that is a critical vanguard for a more vigorous and robust dislodging of the ANC’s hegemony in future – especially from a more cohesive Leftist or Workerist base.
And, their inability to endorse an alternative political party also highlights how unattractive existing choices are – at least to them. One imagines that a more “pure” socialist entity with strong union backing might be their eventual vehicle of choice.
With almost 21 days to go before the election, this vote may still turn out to be something of a watershed. Not because South Africans are suddenly going to become “swing” voters, but the discomfort in either making the choice for or against the ANC has reached new heights and can manifest in small but significant poll setbacks for the ruling party.
Importantly, this can precipitate a tipping point in the post 2014 period when either the ANC leadership has to change dramatically or alternative political products are launched to alleviate the discontent.
Already our Chapter 9 institutions, judiciary, electoral monitoring bodies and state broadcaster are being tested for their independence as a sense of unease takes us beyond 7 May. We still face the ultimate test of a mature democracy – that of a tangible electoral threat to the majority of the ruling party – and the jury is out on how we will handle this.
Daniel Silke is an independent political analyst and keynote speaker. He is director of Political Futures Consulting and is author of Tracking the Future.
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