Herman Mashaba | The failure of the opposition in South Africa

mashaba graph
mashaba graph

Citizens disappointed in the ANC are exiting the political process rather than choosing an alternative party, writes Herman Mashaba. 

We can all embrace the idea that South African politics is somewhat unique.

Unfortunately, this is true for all the wrong reasons.

One such feature of our young democracy is the rise of those who do not vote. Last year, 18.5 million South Africans of voting-age did not cast ballots, compared to the 17.5 million who did.

Political parties like to chastise these 18.5 million people as being the cause of the misery the ANC continues to inflict on South Africans. While this doesn't surprise me, this is a little self-serving.

Our country suffered from 39% unemployment pre-Covid-19.

We endure one of the highest crime rates in the world. Our healthcare and education systems produce dismal results where children drown in pit latrines and people die of preventable conditions. All of this is presided over by a government that has broken the civil service with cadre deployment and looted with impunity.

The point of this is the 18.5 million South Africans of voting-age who were eligible to vote but did not in 2019 are not apathetic. How could you be apathetic under these conditions? It is because the opposition space in South Africa is less capable than our incapable government.

mashaba graph

The above table shows what each political party's support truly is when measured not against those who voted, but against the voting-age population of the country. In other words, it reflects the percentage of the vote they received when measured against all eligible voters and not just those who voted.

So why is the voting-age population important for this analysis? It is because people who are eligible to vote and do not exercise this right, especially in our circumstances, are making a choice of their own and one worth including in analysis.  

What emerges from this picture is two-fold.

First, the combined losses of all political parties are largely equal to the decline in voting-age turnout. In other words, people are exiting the political process rather than considering alternatives. Arising from this is my second point, 51% of voting-age South Africans do not feel there is a political party worth voting for.

This is the failure of the opposition space in South Africa that, even in the face of the greatest failures of the government over the last 15 years, they could not gain any ground.

Opposition forever

One of the most unique characteristics of South African politics is our opposition parties either do not want to unseat the ANC and govern themselves or they are incapable of it, or both. Everywhere else in the political world, political parties in opposition do not aspire to be in opposition forever. They are constantly positioning themselves as an alternative government-in-waiting.

Here in South Africa, they form around niche interests that are unpalatable to the majority of South Africans. Whether that niche is race, religion, language or regional, there is no broad appeal that can challenge the ANC even with its vulnerability following the Zuma years.

Fast forward to today.

The ANC has proven its fundamental failure to manage the country through the Covid-19 storm.

It lost 1.4 million votes in 2019, and will lose far more in 2024 even on the most generous projections. However many voters they lose, the analysis of the last four elections demonstrates those voters who leave the ANC will likely not vote and this will produce roughly the same election result again. While the party might decline by a few percentage points, historic patterns suggest most of the votes it loses will not be won by any of the existing opposition parties.

This is why I am working to establish a new political party in South Africa. We need a political alternative that offers a political home to all South Africans, most especially those who have given up on the political process. This is exactly what we are working to establish.

Gave up voting

Already it is overwhelming how many people are engaging me with messages that start with which particular election they gave up voting. Whether it is was 2004, 2009, 2014 or 2019, there is a common thread in their stories. Almost without exception they gave up voting because there is not party worth voting for, there is no party that can unseat the ANC, and politicians cannot be trusted to keep their promises. 

When our new political party is launched on 29 August this year, it will be clear for everyone to see.

Our values are grounded in a public engagement process which millions of South Africans were involved in.

Our solutions arise from teachers, doctors, nurses, farmers, policemen, prosecutors and business owners, both big and small.

Our support, growing every day and representing the true diversity of our country, will be the only force that can reckon with the ANC.

South Africans are good, hard-working and honest people. They love their country, hate what is being done to it and believe in the prospect of a better tomorrow.

- Herman Mashaba is the founder of the People's Dialogue.

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