Elections: It’s time for change

Political parties election posters along Umngeni road in Durban on Sunday. Picture: Doctor Ngcobo/Independent Newspapers

Political parties election posters along Umngeni road in Durban on Sunday. Picture: Doctor Ngcobo/Independent Newspapers

Published May 28, 2024


The national and provincial elections that coincide with the 30th anniversary of our democracy are unfolding in quite different ways across South Africa’s nine provinces, and in many countries worldwide.

The candidates are different and include independents contesting alongside new and established political parties for the first time since 1994.

The issues are different. The level of media attention is different. The turnout will be different and hopefully higher than before. And the electorate is different as some party-loyal voters have died; some have cast their special votes inside the country, and in diplomatic missions overseas.

These are not an inexact substitute for the previous elections held five years ago. The ANC, DA, IFP, EFF, ACDP and others feature strong support bases in two or more provinces. Yet the campaigns have been defined mainly by the emergence of small new parties such as the MK Party, Rise Mzansi, Action SA, and other newcomers pitted against the governing ANC.

We must all vote wisely instead of staying away from the polls, which is why the Kagiso Trust, the KwaZulu-Natal Christian Council, the KwaZulu-Natal Religious Leaders Forum, the Election Monitoring Network and others will deploy election observers and conflict mediators nationwide to observe compliance with the Electoral Code of Conduct.

The perceived fulfilled or unfulfilled past promises will significantly influence whether the glass is half empty or half full, ultimately determining the candidate choice for each voter.

Moreover, there was never a guarantee that these elections would have no unscrupulous politicians and a proliferation of election promises mismatched to voter priorities. In the long term, inflated election promises might lead to disillusionment or apathy by also undercutting democratic stability and by calling into question the value of voting, even if in the short term they excited interest during the campaigns.

The past five years of the ANC’s 30 years in government have come under the spotlight and have seen the appointment of Justice Mandisa Maya as the first female Chief Justice; the impeachment of former Western Cape judge president John Mandlakayise Hlophe and Gauteng High Court Judge Nkola Motata, who became the first two members of South Africa’s judiciary to suffer such fate since 1994; the resignation of the Speaker of the National Assembly Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula amid bribery allegations; another first was removing a Chapter Nine institution head, former public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane in September, 2023 after a motion initially tabled in September, 2019.

However, the events that are most likely to resonate with a bruised electorate are more everyday experiences.

By some reckoning the average South African suffers from poverty and inequality in real terms compared to 2019, when the bright-eyed and wide-smiling president and premiers took office.

The sorry state of our economy and the long-term effects of the Covid-19 pandemic have increased the vulnerability of millions of households.

Similarly likely to shape the election outcome and future assessments of this era are the shocking figures: high inflation and the cost of living, violent crime that disproportionately affects women and children, and the deterioration of public services and infrastructure.

The ANC argues in these election campaigns with some force, that a lot of this misery portrayed by a myriad statistics is down to entirely unexpected and destabilising events, notably the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, corruption and maladministration, dysfunctional local government coalitions, volatile financial markets, and many more events out of the government’s control.

At the dawn of this president and premiers’ administrations, joint government by collaboration with social partners felt daringly novel and exciting for South African politics. Little did we know, but it was a sleepy lull by comparison with what came next.

When each voter stands in the voting booth and weighs their compilation of lived experiences during these past five years, also focusing on the ushering in of the “Ramaphoria” and “Thuma Mina” era, they will essentially decide based on the threads that join the many good-on-paper but haphazardly-implemented policies and legislation shaping the ANC’s stranglehold on national, provincial and local politics more than anything else.

These include maladministration, corruption, and ballooning national debt. Several premiers led administrations marred by scandals involving jobs for sex, jobs for sale, theft of Covid personal protective equipment, millions embezzled in ghost projects, and very few arrests and convictions of culprits.

These threads were the defining mission of the ANC’s shiny and bloated administration, cheerfully waved through by the coalition partners that helped the party cling to power in some legislatures and municipalities nationwide.

There has been an unprecedented squeeze on public spending, mainly focused on everyday deteriorating services ranging from water and sanitation, electricity and infrastructure, social work and healthcare to safety and security services, environmental protection and food security.

If this was the broader theme of the past five years of the ANC government, it has been cloaked in what felt like a never-ending veneer of political drama.

The courts’ judgments concerning public participation have often rebuked legislative bodies and ruled that impracticalities or the cumbersome nature of the facilitation of public participation at numerous or late stages of the legislative processes were not a justification for the legislative bodies not to meet their constitutional obligation to treat citizens as deserving of consultation, instead of mere subjects to be subjugated.

We are now in what may be the final scene of the ANC’s final act of dominance in our national politics.

Ramaphosa has managed to steady the ship while doing nothing to make the party appear more appealing to voters.

Regarding the economy, post-Covid recovery remains slowly on track. Unemployment is high, poverty and inequality are also at all-time highs, and these are the leading causes of social ills.

That should bode poorly, but the critical question is whether South Africans think the economy will improve dramatically in the coming months, think it is working for them or think there must be a new and safer pair of hands, forgetting the chaos of Covid.

On immigration, throughout the election campaigns, parties highlighted the problems stemming from the influx

of foreigners. They promised policies to restrict trade licences and work permits in specific economic sectors and to deport those without valid documents to stay in the country, aiming to show voters which party outshines others on the issue. Since then, tensions have risen in some communities, and xenophobic rhetoric has increased. We witnessed such rhetoric on a loop.

On climate change and food security, parties focused on the impact of floods, droughts, other severe weather events, and the proposed offshore mining of South Africa’s coastline in an unprecedented reflection that climate change is real.

It makes tactical sense, as environmental rights and sustainable livelihoods are rare issues that feature very strongly in opposition party promises, raising voter support prospects in urban and rural communities. We witnessed parties hitting and keep on hitting with promises, and expect a high voter turnout following stiff competition in the directly affected Wild Coast and West Coast.

On foreign policy, for several parties the Israel-Gaza war presented a fiendish proposition: how to satisfy or merely mollify both the Israel lobby and large sections of their parties, particularly the left and the young – those more sympathetic to the Palestinians?

Spiralling litigation by the South African government in the International Court of Justice against Israel’s pounding of Gaza shows the potential for pro-Palestinian parties such as the ANC to divide their constituency support.

The DA, ACDP and others have no such worries: They are pro-Israel.

On deepening democracy, parties are keen to stress the threat to democracy at home. After all, the DA resorted to burning the national flag to underline how much the Multi-Party Charter for South Africa it leads is opposed to the prospects of a coalition government that includes the ANC and the EFF.

Also, the successful efforts to bar MK Party’s Jacob Zuma from returning to Parliament will encourage some voters and discourage others, considering his promises to change the Constitution to remove several checks and balances and even saying he wants to house pregnant teenagers on Robben Island.

As the tail-end of the 30-year ANC reign slips away in a fog of policies –some of which may feel more performative than meaningful – what will the country make of this era if and when it is over?

For many, there will be relief that voters will have freely chosen who to reward, who to punish, and who to give a first chance. Most governments run out of steam after so long in office. If any one thing propels coalition arrangements at national and provincial-levels

into power, it will be that most irresistible political sentiment: it is time for change.

Others may feel almost a retrospective confusion. It is hard to think of another period of South African politics that summons such a strong sense of questioning what that was all about.

But in our everyday lives up and down the country, with so many choices on the ballot paper and in an environment where many public services are running on fumes and a pervading sense that nothing is working any more, there could well be a feeling that – to borrow a phrase – things can only get better.

Can they? Contesting parties have tried their hardest.

But as democracy goes, it is in the hands of each eligible citizen to vote deliberately and proceed to hold public representatives accountable for the duration of their office term. Vote and be counted.

* Nyembezi is a policy analyst, researcher and human rights activist

Cape Times