Picture: Itumeleng English / Independent Newspaper / Taken January 13, 2024. President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers his January 8 statement at the Mbombela stadium were the African National Congress (ANC) is celebrating its 112th birthday celebration.
By Sipho Seepe
Democracy is an experiment. The nature of this experiment depends on each country’s socio-political history. Regular elections have become the defining feature of the democratic process.
In South Africa, the promise of democracy was eloquently captured by none other than Nelson Mandela in his Rivonia Trial speech in 1964. Mandela remarked that he “cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities”.
Thirty years into democracy, the promise is yet to be realised. If anything, Africans finds themselves at the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder. Nowhere is the intensity of human destitution more than in African communities. With unemployment estimated at 40 percent, African communities have become epicentres of grinding poverty and hopelessness. Contrast the unemployment rate among white people, at 7.5 percent; the racial disparity is blindingly obvious.
The persistence of apartheid socio-economic patterns finds expression in the workplace. Former statistician-general Dr Pali Lehohla reportedly said that according to the Labour Force Quarterly Report, the “proportion of whites in the workforce rose from 42 percent in 1994 to 65 percent in 2023” … ”For blacks, especially those aged between 25 and 34, the figures have regressed from a share of 17 percent of the skilled workforce to 14 percent over the same period. This means that the black youth in this age group have regressed. More generally, blacks are sadly stuck at 15 percent of the skilled workforce on average. They have never moved in 30 years.”
The above depressing reality persists even though South Africa is purportedly a thriving democracy with a Parliament comprising 14 political parties. Most disturbing, but not surprising, is that Africans, who constitute 80 percent of the parliamentary chamber, and the post-apartheid government led by Africans, have been unable to dislodge apartheid’s spatial and socio-economic patterns.
This should not come as a surprise, given the fact that the ANC government has dismally failed to dislodge the apartheid architecture it inherited. Suffering from a sense of inadequacy, the governing party has instead enthusiastically embraced apartheid thinking. As a result, the African majority will continue to bear the brunt of degrading poverty in the country of their birth.
South Africa’s failing democracy is thus not due to how many parties are represented in Parliament. The failure is to be found in the ANC’s lack of imagination and the crippling self-doubt that it suffers. Nelson Mandela was spot on when he said: “The lack of human dignity experienced by Africans is the direct result of the policy of white supremacy. White supremacy implies black inferiority.”
The bankruptcy of thought has inevitably led to the bankruptcy of action. The rich and better-educated Africans who have benefited from South Africa’s negotiated settlement have, by and large, become the buffer zone between the working class and the unemployed, with white capital remaining in full control.
It comes as no surprise that elections have become meaningless routine exercises that keep most of our people busy with low returns, if any.
The mushrooming of political parties before elections is not new. A record number of 48 parties had registered candidates for the 2019 national parliamentary election. For the uninitiated, this may give the impression of a maturing and vibrant democracy. But, as they say, all that glitters is not gold.
For a start, only 14 out of 48 garnered sufficient votes to have representation in Parliament. In other words, hundreds of thousands of votes were wasted on the remaining 34 registered parties which failed to meet the minimum threshold. This effectively deprived voters of one of the most effective tools available to hold the government accountable.
The ANC holds a lion’s share of the vote, followed closely by the DA and the EFF.
Second, with the DA and the Freedom Front Plus having consolidated white votes, this boiled down to 46 black-led parties having to compete among themselves for the African vote. Interestingly, in what could be a nakedly vulgar ploy to divide Africans, many of the parties were funded by the same sources. Their egos prevented them from finding cause with one another.
The failure of the post-1994 political dispensation to transform apartheid architecture is to be found in this lack of unity among the oppressed. As Malcolm X eloquently put it: “There can be no black-white unity until there is first some black unity. There can be no workers’ solidarity until there is first some racial solidarity.
“We cannot think of uniting with others, until after we have first united among ourselves. We cannot think of being acceptable to others until we have first proven acceptable to ourselves.”
Steve Biko attributed the lack of unity among black people to white racism and white supremacy. White racism ensures that black parties are pitted against one another. It is “one force against which all of us are pitted”. “It works with unnerving totality, featuring both on the offensive and our defence. Its greatest ally to date has been the refusal by us to club together as blacks because we are told to do so would be racist. So, while we progressively lose ourselves in a world of colourlessness and amorphous common humanity, whites are deriving pleasure and security in entrenching white racism and further exploiting the minds and bodies of the unsuspecting black masses.”
It comes as no surprise that 30 years into democracy, Africans have made little progress in reclaiming their ancestral land. Instead of building on their common experience, they have embarked on meaningless ideological contests. In doing so, they have forgotten the most basic lesson brilliantly captured by Amilcar Cabral. Cabral advised: “Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone’s head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children.”
Truth be told, the ANC has failed to use its majority in Parliament to advance the interest of African people. It has shot down or diluted almost every progressive submission intended to change the historical patterns inherited from apartheid.
The DA seems to have understood this and has been able to outsmart the governing party. Its slogan, “Where we govern, we do it better”, has ensured its electoral success. It is precisely because of this that it has rendered the Western Cape province politically impenetrable.
As we approach the 2024 elections, reports suggest that 200 parties have indicated their intention to contest them. Once more, the African vote is set to be divided even further. As was the case in 2019, hundreds of thousands of votes will probably be wasted. We seem to be incapable of learning. In the final analysis, the mushrooming of political parties would do little to advance the promise of freedom that Nelson Mandela spoke about.
Professor Sipho Seepe is a higher education and strategy consultant