The Real Kingmakers of our democracy: the non-participants

2016-07-05 07:33

The newspapers and various forms of media have been awash with stories of the disqualification of Zanele Magwaza-Msibi’s  (NFP) National Freedom Party (or IFP-lite if you will). Despite their huffing, puffing and court challenges they were told they could not participate in the upcoming local government elections since they failed to pay their deposit on time. They, of course claim it was an administrative error for which they should not be so harshly punished. Their folly follows hot on the heels on the disqualification of Andile Mgxitama’s Black First, Land First (BLF) , the China-Mall version of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). This was due to their failure to properly register as a political party.

These disqualifications will have varying degrees of impact on the electoral outcome in some areas of the country. The NFP garnered just under 300 000 votes in the last general elections and with 200 councillors, had been the kingmakers in parts of KZN, forming alliances in 19 hung municipalities. Mgxitama and his BLF on the other hand can only count a few TV appearances for laying charges against De Klerk, failing to dethrone Malema and a few cameo appearances as a political analyst on the farce that is Gupta-TV in terms of impact and influence.

While it is easy to simply attribute the relatively unchanging voting patterns to emotionally-fuelled loyalty people have to their parties and poor visibility of opposition parties , the numbers would suggest we look at the issue differently. The factor that has had the greatest impact in past elections has arguably been the absent voter. In the 2014 general elections, the most hotly contested elections since 1994; only 54% of the voting age population turned up to vote (that accounted for just under 74% of registered voters). The governing party, seemingly oblivious to this, boasted about the  11,4m voters who returned them to power, sentencing the country to 5 more years of the Zuma presidency. This represented about 62% of votes cast, impressive at first glance but alarmingly, this is  less than a third of the actual population of voting age. To put it differently, the number of ANC voters was dwarfed by the number of those who chose to not stand in a line and cast a vote. In 2014, that number stood at 17 million, many of them young, Black and disillusioned.

Therein lies the conundrum. There are literally millions of voices which are not heard when it comes to the democratic discourse in South Africa in the form of elections. One could argue that there are a myriad of reasons behind the voter apathy we experience. There are too many who believe that their votes will not make a difference. One of the reasons put forward to explain this phenomenon is that large sections of the electorate are not well informed on the mechanisms and inner workings of a participatory democracy and our electoral system. This is underscored by the statements of some people whenever there is a protest: “we don’t know what we are voting for, we voted but they didn’t do this , that and the other”... Moreover,  too often we see a conflation of party and state in the minds of people. It is hard to differentiate between party-political office-bearers and government officials for some. An example of this would be when someone refers to Gwede Mantashe as being part of government. He isn’t. This feeds into the cycle of misinformation where people see the ANC (or DA), the government and the IEC as part of one amorphous power system that has disempowered and neglected them. The response to this alienation often takes the form of violent, destructive protests as well as low voter turnouts. Many people choose not to participate in a system that they feel excludes them or attempts to manipulate them through food parcels, free t-shirts and rent-a-crowd shenanigans. The withholding of votes as a weapon to “punish” the governing party is a widespread tactic employed by our people, regardless of the low levels of effectiveness. This unfortunate situation plays into the hands of the dominant party in a particular region as the only thing required for victory is the mobilization of a few supporters to actually vote while the disgruntled stay at home. Think Khutsong, Malamulele  and recently Tshwane. To say voter education is sorely lacking would be an understatement of note.

On the other hand, the growing levels of education and awareness, the rise of militant parties with a focus on grassroots mobilization like the EFF and the harshness of dealing with the unmitigated disaster that has been the Zuma years has forced many to question previously held assumptions and beliefs. There are numerous debates across the country on what would constitute the “lesser evil” of choices that many had never imagined themselves making: "I don't trust Julius but..." "The DA is so white but...", "I have never supported these small parties before..." . The anger around the Nkandla debacle and the pseudo-apology that followed it, the Gupta state capture allegations, growing inequality, Nene-gate and many other  scandals have the potential to galvanize even the most apathetic amongst us to some sort of action. There are many indications that people from across the spectrum are dissatisfied with how they are governed, from empty stadiums, to various “Fallism” movements, social media trends and even reducing cabinet members to tears when they insult the poor by distributing government-issue free blankets wearing party gear. To be fair, the powers that be have, under immense pressure, begun listening and responding to some of the concerns of the citizens- even while they tiptoe around the Nkandla albatross and his controversial friends from Saharanpur. However, many feel that it is too little, too late and will use the first Wednesday of August to make it known.

The local government elections are a few weeks away. One wonders whether they will be a true and unequivocal representation of the will of the people (especially the youth, who make up the bulk of the population) or will we be left wondering again what was really on the minds of the many who chose not to speak in the only way that forces all politicians to stay up till late with eyes peeled and ears attentive?

*Akani writes in his personal capacity


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