OPINION | Michael Louis: The future is independent, political parties are dying

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A voter casts her ballot at a polling station at the Johannesburg Muslim School in Newtown.
A voter casts her ballot at a polling station at the Johannesburg Muslim School in Newtown.
Luca Sola / AFP

The 2021 municipal election proved that a viable path is available for independent candidates and that there is a real demand for independent candidates and more broadly for alternative ways of choosing public representatives, writes Michael Louis.

There is data set that has not been given adequate attention as the nation and the media alike consider the results of the 2021 local government elections. We should not ignore this data in the noise that comes with result announcements. 

Inevitably the conversation has been consumed by the horse-race politics of the large political parties, the flamboyant personalities, and the opening salvos of coalition discussions. The mix of drama and schadenfreude is often unavoidable for media publications competing for clicks and eyeballs. Be that as it may, this is not data that should be ignored; it is a critical harbinger of South Africa’s political future. There is a missing headline. 

This data is explosive because it shows a powerful disruption of our electoral system at a community level. It shows a disruption that is likely to continue in the next election, which is the 2024 national and provincial election. It is a proof of concept for those who have been arguing for electoral reforms and for direct elections. 

Noticeable fruits 

Not only was this a historic election in terms of participation of independent candidates it was also one which yielded noticeable fruits in a wide range of locations. In the first instance, this election had an unprecedented number of independent candidates taking part with over 1600 candidates stepping up. 

Not only did they take part, but independent candidates, movements and community forums shook up the election and are going to play a major role in many local governments. This is the missing headline, the missing conversation in our reflections on this election. 

Consider that the aggregated votes that went to independents in this election amounted to over 650 000 votes. The aggregated votes placed the collective independent movement ahead of several major parties, putting them in fifth position nationally. This effectively means that independents, as a voting bloc, are now larger than parties like COPE, VF+, ACDP, UDM, ATM, PA, GOOD and the NFP, with approximately 4% of the vote only trailing the ANC, DA, EFF and IFP in voter numbers. 

READ | Opinion: Michael Louis: Independents vs party candidates: A move towards depoliticalising local gov

For a very long time, the question in our democracy has been whether or not there is a viable path to office for independent candidates. There has been hesitancy to support the idea of independents and to fund candidates brave enough to embark on this journey. The 2021 election changes that and critically proves that a viable path is available for independent candidates and that there is a real demand for independent candidates and more broadly for alternative ways of choosing public representatives. This changes everything. 

This trend will have a disruptive impact on the 2024 elections. The New Nation Movement judgment of the constitutional court opened the way for independent candidates to compete at the national level. 

Professionalise government

The "Direct Elections Bill" is before Parliament, ready to be passed before the deadline of 11 June 2022. This Bill will make our electoral system more legitimate and representative, and in turn will professionalise and depoliticise government. It will also introduce a constituency-based system for Parliament, with electronic voting and an open list system. 

The big parties have dragged their feet on honouring the constitutional court order, but they cannot block the inevitable; many passionate and committed citizens will work as hard as possible to prevent this. 

The public is fully aware that the system is not working as advertised; they are aware of the high levels of corruption and the low levels of delivery. They are fully aware of the lack of real accountability mechanisms. The public has watched the belligerence and arrogance of political parties from the front row for years. The public has seen the dysfunctional nature of big party politics. They are frustrated with politics as usual, and their passion for democracy has led them to consider new alternatives. 

READ | Mandy Wiener: Residents of failed municipalities, now is the time to take the power back

For many South Africans, political parties are not an attractive option. They do not want to be a part of the mess, to be beholden to the party's bureaucracy and to be beholden to the ideologies of a big political party.  We the people do have to deal with the cloaks and daggers of a political party any longer. For many voters in 2021, independent municipal associations offered a happy medium, some structure, some accountability while providing all of the pleasures of independence.

When one looks at the performance of independent candidates some very interesting examples, show up, and they should not be ignored as pundits and parties try to take control of the narrative. 

  • Cederberg Eerste won 8141 votes (27.5%) in the Cederberg Local Municipality in the Western Cape, second only to the ANC.
  • Setsoto Service Delivery Forum has won 11 100 votes (22.88%) in the Setsoto Local Municipality in Free State, second only to the ANC.
  • Lekwa Community Forum won 8925 votes (19.43%) in the Lekwa Local Municipality in Mpumalanga, and is second only to the ANC.
  • Siyathemba Community Forum won 5896 votes (39.67%) in the Siyathemba Local Municipality in the Northern Cape thus far, and is second only to the ANC.
  • Knysna Independent Movement won 3698 votes (7.9%) in the Knysna Local Municipality in the Western Cape thus, and it will play kingmaker. 

Historically one would have expected the runner ups to come from the EFF or the DA, but in the communities, with high quality independent movement, the people chose to go with the independents. The future is really independent, the political party dying. 

There are various phases in the innovation of a product; firstly the innovators come together and create something, then the early adoption phase sees the adventurous and faith-driven give the new initiative a chance, from that point the next phase is the early majority and then the late majority. We have progressed out of the phase of early adoption. 2024 will be transformative for our democracy, for the better. 

- Dr Michael Louis is One South Africa's chairperson.

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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