Residents in Ward 9, Winterveldt, cast their ballots for new councillors during the by-elections. Picture: Oupa Mokoena/African News Agency(ANA)
Residents in Ward 9, Winterveldt, cast their ballots for new councillors during the by-elections. Picture: Oupa Mokoena/African News Agency(ANA)

Election results pointer to SA’s future political direction

By Rudi Buys Time of article published May 24, 2021

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This week 36 000 registered voters across the country participated in 40 by-elections, many of which were postponed during the national lockdowns last year.

As the final round of voting prior to the municipal elections later this year, the smooth running, or not, of the elections this week, as much as their results, will offer useful information to estimate what may follow in October.

Such estimates play an important part when the results of the nationwide municipal elections are taken as indicative of the direction that South African politics in general will take in the near future, and where the electorate may place its loyalties when they vote at the next polls. Commentators will therefore study the outcomes of the by-elections this week closely to develop estimates for the results of the municipal elections.

What the by-elections say about the general direction of politics in the country is useful in gauging where the South African electorate are heading in the long run.

At the centre of the analyses regarding the political direction of a citizenry today is the question whether mass-politics in the country are becoming more liberal and leftwing, or more conservative and rightwing.

The question increasingly has become an urgent one when noting the well-reported trend of increasing political support for conservative and right-wing agendas and representatives all across the world.

This is not the only trend that matters in global politics, but it is the one that’s become a rallying cry for both the left and the right. The political left reads the trend as a threat, while it emboldens the right.

The struggle of the two movements in recent years has been reported most vividly with developments in American and European politics.

In South Africa this struggle has been closely associated with the factional politics of the ruling party.

The formal positions of the party, and the popular positions of various factions on a National Democratic Revolution (NDR) and Radical Economic Transformation (RET) seemingly form the basis of claims regarding a move to the left or the right for politics in the country. Members associated with the NDR more broadly at regular intervals warn against the divisive politics of those driving RET, while they, in turn, charge the other as right-wing counter-revolutionaries.

What citizens and voters are left with are popular and often contradictory claims of what more liberal and more conservative agendas look like and will achieve. One way of exploring the distinction is to consider the distinctive purposes of more liberal and more conservatives agendas, and therein see what similarities they share as tools of political action.

More liberal politics, in general terms, aim to increase freedoms and do so by decreasing boundaries and limits to citizen action – a political agenda closely associated with the dramatic growth and impact of globalisation over the last century.

Conservative politics, in general terms, follow a more protectionist agenda to increase boundaries and state intervention – a political agenda that gained momentum in response to the threats of alienation and corporate power of globalisation.

In the South African context, arguably, what is termed by conservatives as a liberal agenda of socialism, is largely drawn from constitutional commitments to establish shared access to rights and resources, and to cohesion across diverse communities – an agenda of togetherness, rather than an agenda of individualisation.

What then is left for the right is an agenda that at its best may demand either greater social justice by changing the Constitution, and at its worst call for populist mobilisation to protect what it owns.

* Rudi Buys is the Executive Dean of the non-profit higher education institution, Cornerstone Institute.

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

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