The elections offered little to be inspired by. South Africans deserve better

Politics have become uninspiring and the majority of politicians uninspired. Many are there for all the wrong reasons (i.e. Louis Vuitton handbags and expensive Italian shoes), writes Melanie Verwoerd.

Late on Friday night I collapsed onto my aeroplane seat. I had spent three days at  the IEC result centre in Tshwane and I was exhausted – physically and emotionally.

I had become acutely aware of the emotional exhaustion earlier on Friday. Standing on the elevated media platform above the expansive floor of the IEC result centre, I had scanned the area below where all the political representatives sat.

Jessie, Ace, Gwede, Lindiwe, Mmusi, Patricia, Floyd, Dali, James, Pieter were just some of the political operatives who floated through the centre. The faces were familiar – as familiar as the result would be.

By Saturday evening we knew that the ANC received just over 57% of the votes, the DA just below 21% and the EFF just over 10%.

So, give or take a few percentage points, nothing had really changed. Despite all the trauma and enormous financial costs of the last five years, the ANC is still the majority party (by far), the DA the official opposition and the EFF the third biggest party. As in the past, the ANC retained control of all the provinces except for the Western Cape.

As all of this started to become apparent I suddenly felt emotionally drained.

Let me be clear: I believe that this election result is the best outcome for the country. Cyril Ramaphosa remains the only president that can guide our country through the next few years and the relatively strong support for the ANC should provide him with the mandate to implement the policies and reforms he had promised.

So why then did I feel so down? The answer came on my flight back to Cape Town.

On the plane two women – one young and African, the other older and Afrikaans – sat next to me. "You know," said the Afrikaans woman, "I have never felt so uninspired in any election as in this one. There really was not a single party that I really wanted to vote for. I only voted because I felt it was my civic duty." The African woman animatedly agreed with her. "They are all bad," she emphasised. "I really did not want to vote for any of them."

They were of course not the only ones who felt this way. Numerous pre-election surveys and polls found that a huge proportion of the population does not trust politicians. Almost 45% of those polled by Ipsos indicated that no political party represents their views.

About 9.3 million eligible to vote did not register. Another 9.1 million who were registered chose not to vote. So in total 18.4 million people did not participate in the democratic process. Just over 17.6 million (one million less than in 2014) people voted. This means that there were almost a million more "non-votes" than votes in the 2019 election. In addition, if those who spoilt their ballots had formed a political party it would have been the sixth largest party in Parliament.

These numbers clearly indicate that the majority of people are tired of the politicians and the political parties.   

I can't blame them. Politics have become uninspiring and the majority of politicians uninspired. Many are there for all the wrong reasons (i.e. Louis Vuitton handbags and expensive Italian shoes).

Parliament is a fantastic place if you really want to make a difference. The letterhead and business card of an elected representative carry enormous power to do good, if used correctly. The batch of politicians from the liberation movements who became elected representatives in 1994 understood this.

However, over the last few years something has gone badly wrong. Many politicians lost their moral compass and became liars and thieves. When exposed, little or nothing happened to them and many are back on their respective party lists – lists that the vast majority of citizens have no say in.

And so in this election most of us were left with little choice: either don't vote or vote for the same faces again. 

Surely we deserve better?

When I got home on Friday night I watched a Netflix documentary called "Knock down the House". It tells the story of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old waitress from the Bronx in New York who in 2018 decided to stand against the fourth most powerful man in the Democratic Party, Congressman Joe Crowley, who had not been challenged for 14 years. All the odds were against her and to make matters more difficult,  she had no money and would not take money from corporate America.

Yet, she decided to run for office, because she passionately believed in the duty of representatives to serve people and because she wanted to make America a better place. She unapologetically stood for the principles of honesty and transparency and people noticed.

Incredibly, after months of being belittled and insulted by her opponents, she defeated the establishment and became the youngest congresswoman ever.

Ocasio-Cortez won, because she dared to be different and because she was able to inspire people who had otherwise lost faith in politicians and politics.

It is clear to me that many South Africans want to be inspired by politicians and leaders again. I know I do.

So I can't help but wonder: Is it not time for a new political movement? A movement that puts forward (and votes for) people who would truly serve their constituents and not their pockets? A movement with leaders of integrity who fight for justice and not amongst themselves? A movement that can give us hope again?

I have a sense that millions of South Africans are hoping that in the 1825 days until the next national election such a movement will be formed, thus providing them with a reason to feel excited about voting again.

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.

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.

Find everything you need to know about the 2019 National and Provincial Government Elections at our News24 Elections site, including the latest news and detailed, interactive maps for how South Africa has voted over the past 3 elections. Make sure your News24 app is updated to access all our elections coverage in one place.

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