Every time South Africans go to the polls, were subjected to an incredible degree of mystification that presents the secular act of voting as a sacred ritual and invests it with all kinds of magical powers that it manifestly lacks.

Elections can be of critical importance, but they’re not always all that they’re cracked up to be. No one who has lived under a dictatorship or entrenched corruption would dismiss as trivial the right to vote in a free and fair election. Elections like, for instance, those that brought Adolf Hitler to power in Germany in 1932, can be decisive political events.

While writer Emma Goldman’s famous observation that “if voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal” looks more than a little silly in the midst of those elections in which there are real stakes for society, there are many in which it bears more than a grain of truth.

There is often a degree to which elections function as a public ritual to legitimate the power of elites more than to offer any realistic prospect for ordinary people to challenge them.

The “established democracies”, which are supposed to be the horizon of our democratic aspirations, are often two-party systems in which the electoral system, along with civil society and the media, are so distorted by the influence of money that voters are able to choose only between competing factions of the elite. There are many countries where no party can be a serious player without enormous financial backing.

And many of the “established democracies” are also imperial states that have no compunction about denying people in subordinate countries the right to elect freely their representatives. From Chile in 1973 to contemporary Haiti, the right to vote for the party of your choice has not extended to the right to vote for a party not approved of by the US and its allies.

But coups are not the only response to processes of popular and often highly democratic forms of political empowerment that threaten elite interests. It’s not unusual for the narrow version of democracy, which takes the form of class rule mediated and legitimated through elections, civil society and courts without any real openings for direct popular participation, to be deployed, precisely, as a reaction to popular mobilisation.

Every time South Africans go to the polls, we’re subjected to an incredible degree of mystification that presents the secular act of voting as a sacred ritual and invests it with all kinds of magical powers that it manifestly lacks.

We’re told that if you don’t vote you can’t complain, which is patently not true. Some of the most organised and effective complainers are organisations that boycott elections.

We’re told that voting is a way of conveying our particular concerns upwards whereas, unlike other forms of political activity, there’s no clear way to read the intention behind an individual vote.

One person may vote for the ANC out of enthusiastic support for its steady degeneration into an increasingly demagogic and self-serving authoritarianism. The person behind her in the queue may cast the same vote, but with a heavy heart and the real sense that this is the last time she will give her support to the party if its degeneration continues. One person may vote for the DA out of racism and another in the hope of more efficient service delivery in a shack settlement.

We’re told that voting is all about making our own choice, whereas it is, in most cases, a limited choice between two competing factions of the elite who are equally invested in scaling back people’s legitimate aspirations for a just society into an insanely unequal society contained with state violence, new forms of spatial segregation and “service delivery”.

At its best, service delivery may be considerably better than nothing, but surviving with a child support grant, a toilet and a prepaid water meter in a tiny RDP house that’s falling apart in the middle of nowhere is not exactly concrete confirmation that South Africa really belongs to all who live in it.

We’re told that voting is the central act of good citizenship, whereas patient labour on a school governing body, or a direct challenge to racism, homophobia or the renascent xenophobia of the Greater Gauteng Business Forum is likely to be a far more effective contribution.

We’re told, relentlessly if implicitly, that the form of electoral democracy that we have is democracy, whereas it is a limited form of democracy and systemically weighted towards elite interests. We’re told that so many people struggled with so much courage for so many years for this democracy when, plainly, there are significant ways in which this democracy is a betrayal of those struggles.

Examples of the ways in which voting is spun into an act with all kinds of significance that it clearly doesn’t hold can be multiplied with ease. But in a country that was founded on racialised conquest, dispossession and exploitation, and which remains profoundly structured in inequality, the ritual of voting is an attractive one in that, in that moment, every person’s inscription on their ballot paper counts as one.

That neither of the two parties in our emerging two-party system has any commitment, at all, to building a society in which each person counts as one in day to day life does not mean there is not something attractive and valuable about the moment of exception.

And, of course, it’s true that when a ruling party is willing to accept defeat at the polls, the prospect of losing power can and does discipline some of its more obviously antisocial tendencies from below. It’s equally clear that without the prospect of losing support at the ballot box, the excesses of the ANC and the DA would be more extreme. Neither party is likely to build more open toilets.

But these facts should not lead us to conclude uncritically that, with each passing election, democracy is, as the cliché goes, consolidating. The ANC and the DA are committed to a top-down and authoritarian mode of development planned by experts rather than attempts to democratise governance and enable the meaningful participation of ordinary people in decision-making.

Both parties habitually respond to popular challenges to the service delivery model – a model that requires citizens to become endlessly patient and passive recipients of services delivered from above – with state violence rather than negotiation.

In the days before the election, the DA was sending out the police to deal with the land occupation in Tafelsig in Cape Town. Two days after the election the ANC was evicting, illegally, in Cato Manor, Durban.

The rapid slide into the language of authoritarian populism in the ANC is entirely anti-democratic. There are some places where the party’s direct or tacit support for outright thuggery against attempts at organising outside of party control have reached the point at which it would be empirically erroneous and ethically irresponsible to refer to the ANC as democratic.

The popular ferment that characterised this election took the form of struggles within the party, boycotts, decisions to run independent candidates and, in some places, a degree of movement from the ANC to the DA. All of these cracks slowly spreading across the hegemony of the ANC are certainly significant.

But we need to bring the same attention to the practice of democracy outside the electoral arena as we bring to elections. For as long as we continue to make elections a fetish for democracy rather than understanding that they are just one part of our limited form of democracy or public conversation, we will be unable to comprehend the full significance of the competing responses to the failures of our democracy to realise the legitimate aspirations of the majority.

One response, typified by people like ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema and Nceba Faku, ANC chairman of the Nelson Mandela Bay metro, is a move to a demagogic and authoritarian populism that is anti-democratic.

Another, supported by the DA and strands in the ANC, is to use the courts and state violence to defend the sole right of technocrats allied to political and commercial elites to govern society. This is democratic in that it accepts that elites must accept the results of elections, but it is a mode of democracy that is so elitist it has no prospects for redeeming the popular hopes that have been invested in our democracy.

A third response is attempts, many of them under siege, to deepen and expand democracy by organising and empowering ordinary people against the elites in the party, state, society and business.

While there may come a time when an election is a decisive event, it could well be the case that our future is shaped to a greater degree by the vigorous contestation under way outside electoral politics than it is by any election.

l Richard Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University. This article was first published on the South African Civil Society Information Service website at www.sacsis.org.za