ANC voters are not stupid

2015-03-04 03:49

Initially I wanted to title this article as, ‘Are ANC voters stupid?’ Then I realised that I am unwilling to create a space for YES. Out of frustration, impatience and ignorance, many have alleged that ANC voters are stupid. This allegation is baseless and offensive because even those who say it are insulting their friends and even family members that vote for the ANC out of conviction. There are reasons as to why this is the case.

The simple reason is that we all enjoy the right to freedom of association and freedom of choice. There is no moderation as to what kind of association and choices we should make beyond that neither of these should impede on the rights of others. Now, one may say that the current ANC impedes on the rights of many citizens through its unthoughtful actions in government, the malaise of corruption that has established itself as the new culture of our governance structures as well as the deliberate promotion and appointment of unqualified persons to positions of power. However, the ANC as an organisation stands for much more than its actions in government.

The historic legacy and reinvention

Whether one supports the party or not, you cannot wish away the illustrious 103 year old struggle of the African National Congress (uKhongolose). To do so would be an attempt to rewrite the history of South Africa’s liberation struggle. This is a movement that has given birth to the likes of the Pan-African Congress, the Inkatha Freedom Party, the United Democratic Movement, the Congress of the People and recently the Economic Freedom Fighters. Each of the mentioned organisations were a result of some developments, whether ideological or personal, within the ANC itself. The organisation remains standing as the oldest liberation movement in the African continent, even with its deficiencies.

This historic legacy is one built on mass mobilisations that began in the 1940s, when the movement realised that signing petitions and sending letters to the British Monarchy was no longer (and had never been) an effective tool of confronting the social injustices meted out against black people by colonial and later apartheid rulers. The organisation had to reinvent itself and reorient its priorities.

This was achieved under the leadership of one of the best (yet under celebrated) leaders the ANC has ever been blessed with, Dr A.B. Xuma who took over as the President of the ANC from 1940 to 1949. It was during his leadership that women became full members of the ANC. He also saw the launching of the ANC Youth League, which would later go on to topple him in favour of Dr James Moroka. Of course, some may argue that Xuma was vehemently opposed to the agitations of the youth within the structures. However, that very youth may not have been able to organise without his intervention.

In 1940, Xuma inherited a dysfunctional ANC with its national, provincial and regional structures fractured, without consolidated membership, with poorly managed (or lacking) finances. The organisation, in that era, some argue was at the brink of collapse. A medical doctor by profession, Xuma was well financed as an individual and extended his finances to the revival of the ANC. In that time period we see a selfless leader, one who used his finances for the betterment of the organisation.

This is in stark contrast with today’s quagmire of a leadership (read the Amathole District Toilet saga) that uses the ANC and the South African government as an extension of their family’s credit/overdraft facilities. However, because of the history of selfless leaders that could reinvent the ANC, many ANC members are hopeful that at some point change will come and the movement will once more be in safe hands. It is not for this article to argue why this may be fantasy. I have elsewhere argued that the ANC is beyond redemption.

The power of branches and incumbency

One thing that the ANC has, which no other political party has is reach. The ANC exists in each and every ward in South Africa. This is powerful. Reach through social media is only targeted to the 34% of South Africans who have access to the internet. Therefore, physical reach is necessary. More so because 25% of households have no access to television and only 69% have access to radio. This means in South Africa the political party with the greatest physical contact with citizens will continue to win elections. How are you able to defend yourself in absence if a rival party misleads a particular constituency about your intentions? You simply cannot.

Another thing that people miss is that ANC branches are hard at work. I mean not with factionalism but real work of attempting to improve people’s lives. ANC branches are organising career exhibitions, they are looking after the elderly in their communities. If you go to any University at the beginning of the year, you are almost guaranteed to see ANC affiliated student bodies assisting returning and new entrant students with registration and surviving the system. There is a famous Midrand Branch of the ANC largely made up of professionals who are bureaucrats in the State departments. This branch engages frequently on thought provoking discussions with Ministers and so on. Whether their inputs are taken on board by government is neither here nor there. The point is that ANC branches (not the bogus ones with ghost members) are busy at work trying to build their communities.

In this instance, again because of the reach of this work, people continue to identify with the ANC. Can you fault them when the only source of hope and inspiration comes in the form of people clad in ANC T-shirts? Of course not. Are they stupid? No, because the very same ANC members that do this work are genuine and committed. They are not part of the grand scheme of corruption and ineptitude displayed by many national leaders. In fact, these members on the ground, they too are embarrassed. They also cringe and weep when corruption takes centre stage as they feel it undoes their good work.

The power of incumbency means that the ANC is able to strategically deploy resources (at times in openly corrupt manipulations of systems) to people when elections are nearing. This reminds people of who is boss around town. Not that people believe (some do) that they would be without these services were the ANC to lose power. They feel that the ANC deserves a second chance because of what they have delivered in the past. The proverbial ‘second chance’ is alive in our personal romantic relationships, why do some people think it does not extend to politics, an arena whereby some people feel strongly about their political affiliations more than they feel about their lovers?

It is no small thing for someone who has lived all their lives for 35 years without electricity and now suddenly they have electricity. This means no longer must they buy chicken pieces just to cook for the night. They can refrigerate (68% of households have refrigerators) and stock food for longer periods, allowing them to budget better and also to not only eat meat on Sundays. I grew up without electricity; no fridge, no television, none of that. Electricity revolutionised the way we lived in our rural home. In a country where some still cannot afford to build themselves a basic pit latrine, the delivery of these services is meaningful and endears the deliverer to the receiver.

Political parties across the world make a stronger case when they have a track record to point to. The fact that corruption exists and is rotting the structures of governance does not automatically mean that service delivery is at a standstill. As a result, the ANC continues to have programmes (even if shoddy) of success to point to during the election campaign. No other opposition party besides the Democratic Alliance is able to make this point on service delivery and even for them their service is restricted to the Western Cape and a municipality in Gauteng.

Poor state of opposition politics

In the absence of something inspiring, genuine and rooted in communities, people quickly utter ‘better the devil you know’. There is logic to this approach. Why should a person leave the ANC, that despite its deficiencies appears to be delivering somehow with the over one trillion rands budget? Opposition parties are struggling with internal democracy, with many lifetime presidents across the spectrum. People quickly ask, ‘how will you run a country if you cannot be democratic from within?’ Is this a stupid question? Certainly not, but there is to an extent (perhaps) a justifiable reason why small parties keep the same leader for a long time. However, it is not for this article to discuss that.

To say that ANC voters are stupid is to excuse and endorse shoddiness, laziness, ineptitude and sterile ideas of opposition political parties. To say ANC voters are stupid subconsciously implies that there is a better alternative. No there is not at the current moment in South African politics and if it is there, it remains inaccessible to the majority of the people. People well invested in politics know that ‘an organisation T-shirt worn by someone is a walking billboard’. It is not surprising that the ANC is fingered in an alleged multimillion-rand consignment of campaign T-shirts scandal. T-shirts are important and they need to be worn to create organisation visibility. South Africans take visibility (again physical) of a party very seriously. Politics are both about ideas and the aesthetic – all over the world.

Opposition parties are still unable to tell us why they are so not appealing to the point that they drive people to sit at home instead of coming out to vote. The ANC has seen declining support in two consecutive national and provincial elections (2009 and 2014). Only 35% of the voting age population votes the ANC. In 2014 the voter turnout decreased. This is more a vote of no confidence in the opposition parties and not the ANC. The ANC still received over eleven million votes. The opposition parties are driving people away from the polls and they must shoulder the blame for weakening our democracy and allowing the ruling party that is growingly being subdued in sins of incumbency with each passing day to continue. If the opposition parties were suitable alternatives, the ANC may not be in power today.

The future

Many dwell on the struggle credentials of the ANC as the basic reason as to why people keep voting the ANC. We need to look beyond this if we are exercising non-simplistic thinking. Physical reach to every corner of South Africa remains the single biggest weapon in the hands of the ANC. Where the opposition parties have been able to exercise strong physical reach, the ANC has seen dramatic declines, Gauteng Province is case in point during the 2014 elections where the ANC dropped by 10%.

To the hopeful ANC members, who are tired of corruption and selfish leaders, the truth is that there is no end in sight. For as long as internal politics of the ANC are top-down, there will be no change. National leaders dictate conference slates and have influence on branch audits and delegations that is beyond the power of branches. Of course, the illusion that branches have power is just that. The only saving grace would be opening the election of leadership to ‘one member one vote’, a concept that traditionalists label as ‘the Americanisation of politics’. The truth is that they understand it would be the democratisation of internal politics, whereby factions will no longer have power to buy conference votes and national leaders would have their fate in the hands of members and not a select few delegates.

South Africa needs fresh politics. However, those who vote the ANC are not stupid, they are exercising their constitutional rights and no one should dare insult them for doing so. When you insult someone you harden their attitudes and entrench them even further in what you are insulting them about. South Africans are not stupid, they want to be engaged and they want physical (and contact) visibility from those who say they are an alternative.

Sustainable and mature democracies depend on politics whereby ruling parties alternate from time to time, in order to generate more ideas and lead without complacency. South Africa too deserves such a future. The problem is not the ANC voters, the problem is all the simpletons who think that way.

This article is long, it could have been longer.

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