South Africans cast their ballots at a polling station in Cape Town's Khayelitsha township, April 22, 2009. South Africans voted on Wednesday in an election expected to preserve the dominance of the African National Congress despite the strongest opposition challenge since apartheid ended 15 years ago. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly (SOUTH AFRICA POLITICS ELECTIONS)

Do we go bleating over the cliff by withdrawing, or do we dig in our heels and engage? That’s the crucial question, writes Shafiq Morton.

Cape Town - Looking back at file images of the iconic 1994 elections there are some profound things that strike one.

First, there is joy – all the faces are happy, shining with hope. And second, the majority of those ululating at the pre-election rallies are the poor.

Fast forward 20 years and the poor are still in the streets, except that this time it’s a new generation, and the young faces have contorted into anger, and the dancing has been around burning barricades.

The question is a lack of service delivery, especially to impoverished communities deep in the country’s urban and rural ghettoes and who have seen little transformation since 1994.

In truth the issue is far more complex than just service delivery, for those at the barricades are the economically disenfranchised.

South Africa may have indeed closed many gaps since 1994, but for those at the bottom of the Gini Co-efficient it just hasn’t been enough – theirs is a reality of broken promises. They are the people who get wet when an expensive German car hits a puddle.

Some analysts claim that the South African problem is not about resources but the capacity to use them. For example, we are told of municipalities where executive officials (benefiting from cronyism) have proved incapable of reading balance sheets.

Others remind us that politics is about perception, and that what most poor South Africans have witnessed since 1994 has been rampant materialism by new elites. And then there is the spectre of corruption.

Others will argue that this unhealthy climate of dissolution has been engendered by our very own president, himself mired in nepotism and facing scandal. According to author Adriaan Basson, Jacob Zuma’s irresolute presidency costs the country nearly R300 a minute.

South Africans have also had to witness a systematic and sinister erosion of democracy via attacks on the judiciary, chapter nine institutions and the promulgation of the Protection of State Information Bill, seen by many as a Stalinist step backwards into constitutional darkness.

This is what is experienced by most South Africans as the language of power; it is a language that drowns out the good work done by the government and those hard-working ministers who do care. And that is the pity, for South Africa has travelled a long road since 1994.

For all of the above reasons, the elections next month are going to be critical in deciding the trajectory of the country. Do we go bleating over the cliff by withdrawing from the process, or do we dig our heels in the sand and actively engage with it?

It is the crucial question: for the fault-line in our democracy is that we have to understand that in South Africa we vote for parties. We do not vote for MPs as in the Westminster system, nor do we vote for the president as in the US.

In South Africa whoever wins the most party votes gets the highest proportion of seats in Parliament and elects the president.

That is why crooked politicians who should be banished from public life can appear in the party lists. That is why Zuma, who would sweat to win a public presidential vote today, will live to see another sunrise inside the ruling tripartite alliance.

Let it be said that while pre-election tripartite alliance infighting and scrambled responses to Nkandla may have attracted the larger share of media attention, opposition parties – no less exempt from drama and intrigue – have had their interesting moments, too.

But not all is disaster and darkness. On the brighter side, smaller parties that would not traditionally win a seat in a winner-takes-all constituency dispensation can still find their way into Parliament on the number of votes cast across the country.

This guarantees that minorities are not marginalised on the national stage, one of the electoral conditions leading out of Codesa and the multiparty negotiating forum of 1993.

The other thing about small parties is that one is voting for a recognisable personality. Unlike in the bigger parties where those on the lists are usually obsequious, effete and anonymous, voters can actually see what they are going to get.

However, there is debate about the future of smaller parties. Most have shed supporters since 1999, and if trends continue, will disappear. New ones still have to face the ballots, but it is expected that the red berets will crest a wave of tri-partite disgruntlement to fill a noisy back bench.

Other small parties, particularly the religious and black consciousness ones, will desperately scoot around hoping to pick up enough votes for seats. But what the small parties do offer in contrast to the bigger ones is mobility, and they do become the stuff of which vital coalitions and alliances are made.

So, for those poised to vote there are a number of options – and contradictions – within the existing framework.

First, does one go the sunshine route on the biggest party? Does one vote for it on tradition, sentiment and hope? But then it could mean indirectly endorsing a corruption-tainted president and his inner circle. Can the party’s good guys deliver in spite of the bad guys?

Second, the second-biggest party – tweeting endlessly – has managed to keep the streets clean in the Western Cape; but it does appear confused on the Middle East. What does one vote for here? And what about its neo-liberal (seen by opponents as anti-poor) policies balanced against the argument of stable local governance?

Third, there are the small parties. Does one go with the academic lady in the headgear who divorced the other lady in blue? The former defence minister? Who’s in there from the Black Consciousness Movement? And what about the ageing Zulu? And the Afrikaners? Or does one go the religious identity route with the reverend or the imam?

At the end of it all, however, ours is a democracy that will only mature through civic vigilance on civil liberties and by our actively ensuring its constitutional freedoms are honoured.

One of the best ways is voting – and while democracy is not perfect, it’s the best we have.

* Shafiq Morton is a Cape Town journalist and writer.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape Argus