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We deserve the government we elect

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By Kim Heller

By this time next year, we would have elected a “new” government. In all likelihood the ANC will continue its rule, despite its dismal performance since the previous election. Unsteady but ready, the ANC is set to win the electoral race, even if it just by a whisker. High levels of dissatisfaction with the ruling party, as previous elections have shown, do not translate into a concomitant fall in support on election day. It was back in 2008 that former President Jacob Zuma exclaimed that the ANC would rule “until Jesus comes back”. For now, it looks as if the ANC will continue to be blessed with votes from its flock even though it has become a basilica with so many false prophets.

The current president is confident. Just a few days ago, President Cyril Ramaphosa told a gathering that “ANC will win the elections, it is silly to think it won’t”.

South Africans, especially the older generation have placed their eternal faith in the ANC even though the governing party has brought salvation only for a chosen few. Those who still believe in the mirage of a better life under the ANC have never imagined, or have found it difficult to imagine, a South Africa without this once-upon-a time liberation organisation at the helm.

Picture: Mike Hutchings/Reuters – Supporters of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) celebrate election results at a rally in Johannesburg. Just a few days ago, President Cyril Ramaphosa told a gathering that ‘ANC will win the elections, it is silly to think it won’t’. This ANC-for-life posture illustrates the power and longevity of faith, even when it is misplaced, the writer says.

This ANC-for-life posture illustrates the power and longevity of faith, even when it is misplaced. That ANC supporters are more committed to the organisation than the organisation is to its supporters is part of the never-ending sorry tale of black politics in post-apartheid South Africa. For black South Africans who expected so much from the ANC in 1994 have increasingly settled for less and less.

It would be dishonest and inaccurate to suggest that the ANC has not heralded in considerable social development across the breadth of the nation, and uplifted hundreds of black communities and individuals who had been structurally excluded and impoverished under apartheid and colonialism.

However, the quality of the ANC’s democracy has failed to accord black South Africans first citizen status. While supporters would tell us that thousands of black scholars have been able to enjoy tertiary education due to the ANC’s policies, they ignore the stark reality that the majority of black children, both degreed and non-degreed, graduate into the deep abyss of unemployment.

The ANC can boast about how many houses they have built for homeless communities, but they have done so without returning the land to black South Africans. This is hardly the marker of a liberatory government. Electricity infrastructure may have been expanded to power up previously excluded and far-flung communities, but economically black South Africans remain largely powerless.

Over its almost 30-year long reign, the ANC has delivered below expectations. Fragrant hope still lingers although its heady perfume was long lost. Instead, the pungent scent of disappointment and despair is the odour of current day South Africa. But election after election supporters vote for the ANC. Many vote out of a hope that is unlikely to ever be sated. Others vote for the ANC out of fear of the unknown. ANC electoral support is both the signature of faith and the mark of fear.

Many say, “better the devil you know” as they cast their vote for the ANC. US journalist HL Mencke wrote, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

Canadian psychology professor, Nicholas Carleton wrote that the “unknown” represents one of humanity’s “fundamental fears” – he argues that fear of the unknown can be greater than fear of death.

An article entitled “Fear of The Unknown: Governments Use Fear o Rule, Misrule And Suppress” by the Council on African Security and Development posits that “the people who have the effrontery to rule us, who call themselves our government, understand this basic fact of human nature”. “They exploit it, and they cultivate it. Whether they compose a warfare state or a welfare state, they depend on it to secure popular submission, compliance with official dictates, and, on some occasions, affirmative co-operation with the state’s enterprises and adventures. Without popular fear, no government could endure more than twenty-four hours.”

Brown University’s political scientist, Rose McDermott, has written that “it is not that conservative people are more fearful, it is that fearful people are more conservative”. “People who are scared of novelty, uncertainty, people they do not know, and things they do not understand, are more supportive of policies that provide them with a sense of surety and security,” McDermott said.

Voter turnout for the 2024 election is likely to be low. In 2019, it fell to 49 percent. ANC supporters are more likely to stay home and not vote than vote for another party. Opposition parties have a great deal to do in the next few months to convince South Africans to vote for an alternative to the ANC. Opposition parties have to present a clear, resonant, and well-grounded picture of a better tomorrow in a post-ANC era. Until ANC voters come to the psychological realisation that their current lived experience is not only unbearable and untenable but unnecessary, they will not be able to cast their eye on any other possibilities.

The ANC’s Gwede Mantashe has said that South Africans will live to regret voting the party out, should this happen in the 2024 election. The task of opposition parties is to convince voters that they will live to regret not voting the party out. Younger voters hold the key for electoral change. They are less captured in the hallow of ANC hope, or as easily paralysed by fear of the unknown. They have less to lose and more to gain. The best chance for opposition parties is to push for youth voter registration and vote casting.

Former US President Barack Obama said, “If you don’t vote and you don’t pay attention, you’ll get policies that don’t reflect your interest.

“People have a tendency to blame politicians when things don’t work, but as I always tell people, you get the politicians you deserve,” Obama said.

Should the ANC retain power next year, it will be a matter of deserving the government we elect.

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.