Nkosikhulule Nyembezi is a human rights activist and policy analyst
Nkosikhulule Nyembezi is a human rights activist and policy analyst

It’s not who political candidates serve, but who they harm

By Opinion Time of article published Oct 7, 2021

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Nkosikhulule Nyembezi

CAPE TOWN - Is it really so radical to say let’s vote for independent candidates because political parties aren’t fit for purpose?

From Manguzi in KwaZulu-Natal to Alexander Bay in the Northern Cape, municipal councillors are there to represent all the people, not only political party members who, in most cases, take the first step to nominate them for election.

Now that we have seen the faces of political party and independent candidates, it’s time to rethink what “representation” means for us all and give independent candidates a chance on November 1.

More people are beginning to see it. Not clearly, but something is coming into view. When independent candidates make up a historically significant number of the approximately 100 000 candidates contesting the local government elections, something inspiring begins to confront us, no matter how much we would like to look away.

In our constitutional democracy, the process of choosing public representatives is governed primarily by two sets of organisational and institutional rules: methods of candidate selection framed by party rules and the states’ electoral laws, respectively.

Except for when we have independent candidates contesting elections in most voting districts, in order to present a potential outcome that can significantly shift political power away from parties to individuals.

In the elections, independent candidates will probably influence the shape and size of political coalitions in small and big municipalities in a different manner than when only political parties dictated with whom and on what terms to constitute municipal councils.

The general profile of independent candidates tells encouraging stories about a strong breakaway from party factionalism, across major political parties represented in the National Assembly, that has paralysed internal democratic processes for nominating election candidates.

It’s clearly more than “unruly and disgruntled” former members of any political party. It’s clearly not just the usual level of adventurism that we’ve come to accept as background noise in an election season. And it clearly happens far and wide enough in the 257 municipalities for it to raise questions about the political force driving the increased number of independent candidates in the elections, their credibility, and the issues they are bringing to the attention of voters.

The questions aren’t just about political party failure – failure suggests the system is trying to prevent this emerging pattern of doing away with dominant political party politics by representing the people well but not succeeding.

Instead, we should be asking what it is about corrupt cadre deployment policies that seem to sabotage the image and conduct of public representatives in the eyes of the people.

Whether the corrupt politicians in various political parties, perhaps, are not merely a reflection of society’s ills but built to uphold them?

What if the party-affiliated politicians are not just harming us occasionally in the manner in which their corruption and misuse of public resources undermines the public confidence in our democracy?

What if they are not serving their primary function of representing our collective interests at all, instead of their narrow political interests and their personal pockets?

Regrettably, the Pretoria high court granted the Zondo commission its fifth extension to finalise its work on September 29, with its report on state capture now due at the end of December.

The delay disadvantages citizens in an election year because the report should serve as a sharp measurement instrument to help voters weed out corrupt candidates wherever they are disguised in the elections.

Once we start asking thee questions, we begin to see not who the political party candidates serve, but who they harm.

The answer is, a lot of people. We can conduct a quick experiment to test where you land on either side of the divide.

If you see a political party leader, a political party flag or a political party candidate poster, do you feel encouraged to vote for them or do you feel slightly on the edge?

If your reaction is the former, then you are fortunate. If it is the latter, you join the millions of citizens who have been lied to, stolen from, forced into hardship of living in communities that no longer receive basic services, and denied opportunities to make a livelihood because of corruption and nepotism.

There are many people who look up to independent candidates this time around because they believe that political parties have become a liability in our democracy, not just because they have lost their way, but because they are functioning exactly in the way their corrupt members and leaders have designed them to do. They are wielding disproportionate, coercive power to maintain a social order that protects the corrupt elite by providing them with limitless access to state resources and victimising the rest of the general population who are pacified into believing that political parties are doing them a favour by facilitating the enjoyment of their human rights.

That is not to deny there are many party candidates in the elections who are on the right side.

Many have worked hard to deserve another term of office by implementing the Batho Pele principles of good government.

But once the historical strands are bound together, they cannot be pulled apart by empty promises of political parties to redeem themselves, or their superficial placement on the candidate lists of individuals who are not party card-carrying members. Even when we recognised the extent of the problem, we fell short of taking affirmative action by supporting independent candidates.

Some decided not to vote, and some decided to vote for another political party. All in the name of protesting. This time, we have another choice to vote as we wish, except to stay away from voting.

When we say the political parties are a liability because of their corruption, we inadvertently obscure, rather than reveal, the real scale of the problem. The problem is not structural, it is fundamental, foundational even.

It is underpinned by conceptualisation that makes a distinction between two families of constitutionally entrenched political rights; those that are enjoyed exclusively by individual citizens (such as the right to vote and the right to stand for public office), and those that can be exercised corporately in a political party context (such as the right to freedom of association).

When we think and see things in this way, we will be able to answer whether it is radical or not to vote for independent candidates in order to uproot corrupt politicians embedded in political parties.

Nyembezi is a human rights activist and policy analyst

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