Picture: Doctor Ngcobo/African News Agency (ANA) – KwaZulu-Natal DA leader Francois Rodgers unveils the party’s registration campaign poster for the 2021 local government elections. The low voter turnout at the 2021 local government elections should be a serious wake-up call for all political parties about their public relevance, the writer says.
By Professor Dirk Kotze
The predicament of the DA leadership, with the coalition government in Tshwane and its regular losses of young leaders, has created speculation that the party is at a dead end.
Most parties would have struggled to survive the resignation of a list of talented members such as Lindiwe Mazibuko, Mmusi Maimane, Phumzile van Damme, Athol Trollip, Herman Mashaba, Mbali Ntuli, Makashule Gana, Bongani Baloyi and Patricia Kopane.
Their histories are informative in the sense that they give us insight into the trajectories of mainly young and innovative politicians who have moved away from the DA. Gana, Ntuli and Maimane started their own movements like One South Africa. Gana and Songezo Zibi intend to start a movement based on the latter’s manifesto for a new South Africa. Mazibuko is the executive director of Apolitical Academy in association with Futurelect. Van Damme is a private consultant on disinformation.
A general accusation made against political parties and their leaders are they are too old or don’t allow enough space for the younger generations to be in senior positions. It applies very much to the ANC, IFP, Freedom Front Plus, ACDP, UDM and Cope. The EFF is the exception. It prides itself on being a party of the younger generations. Party politics is therefore generally not attractive to young members. They are frustrated by a party hierarchy that depends on years of service in the party and “going through the ranks”.
A new party, like ActionSA, is initially not constrained by it but, after a few years, the same hierarchy normally emerges. Parties are attractive for young members who have an ambition to make politics their career if it allows for internal mobility and many opportunities to take initiatives. The business motivations of rewards for performance, space for innovative ideas and competition among peers for promotions are, most of the time, not reconciled with the political rigour of centralised authority, the emphasis on political experience and party discipline. South African political parties, in general, therefore do not attract much young talent.
The DA’s resignations are also symptomatic of another concerning trend in party politics. Several surveys by Afrobarometer, the Human Sciences Research Council, the Institute of Justice and Reconciliation and others have demonstrated a gradual decline of society’s trust in public institutions. It includes political parties and politicians, state institutions and the various spheres of the government. In some instances, politicians who have a visionary look at society or a mission to make an impact on social upliftment and economic development reach the conclusion that it cannot be done by party politics.
Maimane’s choice of the One South Africa movement and not joining Mashaba as a party politician, or Gana’s conclusion that he should concentrate on community development are such examples. It raises the question of what the task and nature of political parties will be in future. Parties and politicians remain the main instruments of representative democracy. Other practical forms of rearranging public representation are not available.
Representation of interests instead of political commitments has been the model in Yoweri Museveni’s Uganda, but it does not guarantee sustainable democratic representation. The alternative is for parties, especially the opposition, to reconceptualise themselves to become relevant for societal needs. Parties can establish leadership academies, skills training programmes for their members and civic education such as voter education and constitutional awareness, basic financial literacy and planning.
Why can a party not be motivated by the example of the Gift of the Givers or Solidarity’s Helpende Hand to assist with social crises? Or the EFF establish basic agricultural training schools for its land policy? Such initiatives can include the aspirational and innovative minds of young political leaders. All the main political parties are too preoccupied with elections. The public experience is the party’s selfinterest dominates over public interest.
Politics provide career opportunities for many, who become professional politicians. The resignations in the DA are symptomatic of the party-political malaise. In last year’s local government election, voter turnout dropped 12 percent, to 45 percent. Even more worrisome is that only 65 percent of eligible voters were registered for the election.
This means that 35 percent of the 26 million or more citizens who qualified to vote, were not interested in doing so. In the end, only about 30 percent voted. This should be a serious wake-up call for all political parties about their public relevance. It also presents an opportunity for the party which can seize it as a challenge for unconventional strategies.
Maybe this is the most important message of the resignations in the DA.
Kotze is Department of Political Sciences at Unisa