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The alphabet soup of South Africa’s political parties may miss the X in 2024

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Picture: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency (ANA) / Taken on November 23, 2022 – Nyanga voters from the ANC, the DA and Good political parties sing outside the voting station at Hlazo Mini Hall in Cape Town during a by-election. Voter turnout in the 2024 elections is expected to be at record lows, as a permanent marker of citizen dissatisfaction, the writer says.

By Kim Heller

Seventy percent of South Africans are dissatisfied with how democracy is functioning in the country, and 72 percent claim that they would be prepared to relinquish elections if non-elected leaders could lessen crime and foster jobs and housing. This according to the latest Afrobarometer survey.

While the 2011 Afrobarometer survey found that 60 percent of South Africans were ‘satisfied with democracy’, the latest reading places satisfaction levels at just 31 percent. This is a significant drop in the currency of a long sought after democracy. It is a chilling vote of no confidence in elections, which are often lauded as a necessary and precious national expression of democracy.

In the words of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, “Voting is the foundation stone for political action. If people don’t vote, or if our votes don’t count, we lose our democracy.”

In 2011, 46 percent of South Africans said they believed that the country was heading in the right direction. In 2021, this had fallen to 24 percent. Two years later, South Africa’s New Dawn remains a long season of discontent. It is rather fitting that next year’s general election will take place in the bitter cold of South Africa’s wintertime.

Disgruntled voters, disempowered voters and disinvested voters may well swell above the numbers of dedicated ANC voters. Voter turnout is expected to be at record lows, as a permanent marker of citizen dissatisfaction. In 2019, there was a 66 percent voter turnout. Ten years prior to this, it stood at 77 percent. It is in this hostile socio-political climate that the governing ANC will feel the heat.

Around two hundred political parties are expected to compete for political power in the country’s 7th democratic national election. Many analysts argue that a heightened rise in political choices is a necessary stir in the sauté of a healthy and mature democracy. In part, this is true. But ironically the heightened political contestation, borne out of disappointment in and disgruntlement with the ANC, may well lift rather than diminish the ANC’s share of vote.

The proliferation of political parties and independent candidates may well turn out to be the “secret weapon” of the ANC that President Cyril Ramaphosa has spoken of. This is because the meteoric rise of political parties could create electoral pandemonium and perplexity. The lengthy electoral ballot is likely to be a be a catalogue of confusion.

In the alphabet soup of South Africa’s political parties, the voter’s X may count less on election day. For the less politically literate or politically informed or invested, it may be easier to simply put one’s X next to the ‘devil one knows’ than the ‘devil one does not know’. In this way, well known parties, particularly the ANC may benefit.

The other danger is that the opposition vote is splintered into tiny shards of support which will, in the end, not count. Many of the votes cast for smaller parties may be wasted in the event that these parties do not achieve the voting threshold required to win a seat in Parliament.

In 2019, 48 political parties competed for political power, but only 14 of these got into Parliament. Of the 400 Parliamentary seats, the ANC has 230, the DA 84, the EFF 44 and smaller parties have just four between them.

With limited resources and voice, the smaller parties battle to influence policy and political direction and have limited speaking time in Parliament. To make a meaningful impact is a real challenge. There are, however, encouraging instances of small parties, such as the ATM, with its two seats, showing that size does not count. This small party has certainly made its mark in Parliament with its ever-ready proactive stance on critical matters, and its often refreshing and robust ideas.

But many small parties have either fallen altogether or have become little more than pedestrians in Parliament. This includes the strongly funded COPE. This is not only due to limited resources in Parliament but also because of a lack of firmly rooted constituencies and ideologies. In the majority rule of Parliament, the ANC hardly ever bends to the will and way of smaller parties.

During a Question-and-Answer session earlier this year, Deputy President, Paul Mashatile, said “When the ANC believes its course is correct, it will use its majority to push those positions. Mashatile said, “I think that is how democracy works: the majority must have its way.”

But the ANC’s majority voting decisions too often do not benefit the ordinary person. In his report at the 50th National Conference of the ANC in December 1997, former President Nelson Mandela spoke of the need to “avoid the development of an elite, alienated from the people, that, during its five years in office, will implement policies which, in reality, do not represent the will of the people”. Increasingly the ANC has abandoned its very own principle that “The People shall Govern”.

The people are disgruntled with political leaders, especially the ANC whose level of voter support is expected to fall in 2024. For many, the main opposition parties have not offered the right solutions, and this has deepened the level of political disappointed and detachment.

For now, political parties, opportunists and wannabe leaders are gathering to benefit from the fallout between the ANC and the electorate. Amongst these are a liquorice all sorts of right wing and centrist political parties who are holding hands in an attempt to feast on the large body of voter discontent. Mostly this is a conservative clasp of old timers, with worn out neo-liberal ideas which will keep true economic transformation and black liberation at bay.

To the left of the ANC is an ideologically vibrant set of political options. A consolidation of EFF, the newly formed MK party and a host of black conscious parties could provide a new and refreshed political alternative. If there is a strong and clear pre-election consolidation of and unification of these political groupings, it could be a real game changer for South Africa’s electoral politics. This configuration could offer voters, especially young voters, with an X that will count.

A brand-new game of coalition politics is set to be in play after the 2024 election. It will be yet another dangerous contest for citizens as political greed, political egos and party interests will once again be placed well ahead of the interests of citizens. Coalitions in South Africa have proved to be generally unsteady, unreliable, and often chronically inefficient.

The 2024 election is unlikely to bring relief to citizens. Our politics is toxic. Rise Mzamzi’s Songezo Zibi was correct when he said: “South Africa’s political system is broken. Instead of a government of the people, by the people and for the people, we have a government of the political parties, by the political parties, for the political parties.”

During his 1997 address at the ANC’s December conference, Mandela said that “the process of reconstruction and development will have to encompass the spiritual life of the nation, bearing on the moral renewal of individuals and institutions, as well as the ideas and practice of a new patriotism”. This is certainly the correct roadmap, but it is unlikely that we have enough political parties and political leaders willing, ready and able to invest in this moral cleansing and renewal.

In the end the responsibility for the health of our political wellbeing will lie with ordinary people, not politicians. In 1990, Mandela said, “Since my release, I have become more convinced than ever that the real makers of history are the ordinary men and women of our country. Their participation in every decision about the future is the only guarantee of true democracy and freedom.”

Kim Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa’.

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.