AFRICA IS A COUNTRY

Recent public commentary has celebrated the virtues of a competitive electoral market in South Africa. The common argument is that the emergence of new political formations on the electoral landscape provides space for increased competition to have a real and meaningful impact on the quality of governance. If followed to its logical conclusion, what this essentially means is that whether we vote for our party preference along partisan lines on May 7th, or tactically shift our support to affect the outcome and send a message to the current governing party, we still have reasons to vote. But in a time of Marikana, of Nkandla, of continued secrecy around party funding and a political class captured by vested interests (irrespective of party affiliation), competitive electoral politics brings little respite from the monumental challenges that fracture our society.

The assumption is widely held, especially among the middle classes, that greater political competition leads to more responsive governance. But, marginalised communities in our cities and the one province under opposition control would beg to differ. Although important, responsive governance is comprised of more than just unqualified audits, clean fiscal management of public money and the absence of scandal. In a society severely marked by inequality it also means prioritising the needs of poor communities first; because trickle down governance does not work. Greater electoral competition and alternation in government has not moved poor communities much closer, if at all, to more accountable and responsive government, let alone socio-economic nirvana. Governance gains such as better basic servicing or safer communities often are the result of intense civil society pressure and mobilisation around social justice struggles. Irrespective of the political party concerned, communities often have to approach the courts in order to hold governments (national, provincial and local) to account for failure to respond to their needs and demands for better governance.

This disillusionment with our politics is because of its capture by narrow and special interests and the lack of responsiveness to ordinary citizens. Party politics has developed a hollowed out ethical core and quite simply; our buffet selection of political parties is increasingly unconvincing and unattractive. Special interest capture of political processes disproportionately trumps the interests and voice of the marginalised and rewards the few who have proximity to the largesse of state power. The palpable frustration driving civil unrest across society is, in part, a symptom of a political game that is rigged in the favour of the few, irrespective of the party political bent of those who govern. So shifting electoral support has brought little in the way of responsive governance outcomes. Simply put, a change in government does not necessarily provide a change in governance. Our challenges require much more than the simple threat of change, or even influence at the ballot box.

A number of individuals and organisations have recently called for the mass spoiling of ballots or abstaining from the process altogether because they are unwilling to swallow their bile and vote for the least bad option. But this has been far too easily dismissed as reactionary, or even silly. The right to vote was hard earned through a difficult struggle. It was not that long ago that millions were deprived of this right and it is therefore as deeply an emotional act to cast a ballot as it is a rational one. So the decision to withdraw a vote through abstention or even choosing to spoil a ballot is not a decision that would be taken lightly. Whether such strategies are an effective protest to a captured politics is another matter altogether. But it is illustrative of the deep discontent with the available choices in particular and quite a damning indictment of our politics in general.

This does not mean that voting and an increasingly competitive electoral politics is not vital for the creation of responsive and accountable governance; it is. But it is wholly insufficient. Voting is not simply a cold rational application of preferences in a process characterised by choice. Nor are market-derived principles of competition a panacea for social justice struggles. The fires in Bekkersdal and Mothutlung reminded us of the rejection of weak political participation framed within the ebb and flow of electoral cycles.

As long as secrecy surrounds those who influence political governance processes; many will remain disenfranchised of their voice between elections. Greater choice or competition is not a salve to this reality. The vote is a mandate to govern. Political parties are not entitled to votes; they have to be earned. In a deeply unequal society like ours this is done through a demonstration of responsiveness to the needs of those who have least access to social, economic and political power.

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Justin Sylvester (on Twitter: @justinsylvester) is a program manager at the Open Society Foundation for South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.

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2 thoughts on “20 Years of Freedom in South Africa: Elections and captured politics

  1. The best piece I ever read here. “Irrespective of the political party concerned, communities often have to approach the courts in order to hold governments (national, provincial and local) to account for failure to respond to their needs and demands for better governance.” Like in all liberal societies with the rule of law.

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