Re-electing corrupt candidates would harm SA’s democracy

South Africa has great potential for enduring peace, stability and sustainable economic growth, but much will depend on the kind of leaders we choose to elect, says the writer. Picture: Jacques Naude/Independent Newspapers Archive

South Africa has great potential for enduring peace, stability and sustainable economic growth, but much will depend on the kind of leaders we choose to elect, says the writer. Picture: Jacques Naude/Independent Newspapers Archive

Published Jan 30, 2024


Nkosikhulule Nyembezi

At the outset of this election year, when we join the Electoral Commission in encouraging eligible voters to register on the first weekend in February, and with thousands of candidates joining the race to win seats in legislative bodies, as South Africans, we should pause to consider what the threat of re-election of corrupt and incompetent politicians would mean for the country and our democracy and to weigh the responsibility this election places on our shoulders.

By now, as voters, we should have no illusions about each candidate.

During their many years as members of legislative bodies and as prominent figures in their respective political parties, some candidates we will be interacting with during election campaigns demonstrated a character and temperament that render them unfit for a repeat investment of our votes.

As elected representatives, they wielded power carelessly and often cruelly, putting their egos, greed and personal needs above the country’s interests. Party cadre deployment practices shielded them from public scrutiny and accountability.

As they campaign again, their worst impulses will probably remain as strong as ever – encouraging political intolerance and lawlessness, exploiting fear and hate for political gain, undermining the rule of law and the Constitution, applauding other corrupt politicians. They will probably escalate as they try to regain power using empty promises and political rhetoric.

They are plotting retribution, intent on eluding the institutional, legal and bureaucratic restraints that put limits on them in their first and subsequent office terms. Warning signs are everywhere, including in the behaviour of some in the same group when they contested and won by-elections and, after that, shockingly wreaked havoc in municipal councils.

Therefore, at the start of the new year, my purpose is to sound a warning: do not elect unsuitable candidates.

The individuals do not offer voters anything resembling a typical option of trustworthy, dedicated, and ethical leadership. They confront South Africa with a far more fateful choice: between the continuance of South Africa as a nation dedicated to “healing the divisions of the past and establishing a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights” and power-hungry individuals who have proudly shown open disdain for the law and the protections and ideals of the Constitution.

Ours is a country with great potential for enduring peace, stability and sustainable economic growth, and much will, however, depend on how we carefully choose leaders who are fit for public office and manage our differences as individuals, groups and a nation.

Our utterances and actions must always take a cue from the foundational values of the preamble to our Constitution by standing resolute in our commitment to reject the injustices of the past 30 years of our democracy; the disunity and pain they brought about must be unwavering and matched by our actions.

That way, and in harmony, we will be able to replace corrupt and incompetent leaders who celebrate people and things that divided and caused us deep and incalculable pain, with new ones who recognise the previously ignored and unify the nation.

If, in previous elections, as various segments of the electorate, we were prepared to look beyond politicians’ bombast in the hope that they might deliver whatever it was they wanted without too much damage to the nation, today, there is no mystery about what unscrupulous politicians will do should they win, about the sorts of people they will surround themselves with and the personal and political goals they will pursue. There is no mystery about the consequences for the nation if South Africans re-elect leaders who openly display their contempt for the batho pele (people first) principles.

The individuals squandered public funds and deepened divisions among South Africans, leaving the country dangerously polarised; they so demeaned public discourse that many South Africans have become inured to lies, deceit and personal enrichment at the highest levels of leadership.

Their contempt for the rule of law, public finance management rules and regulations raised concerns about the long-term stability of South African democracy, and their absence of a moral compass threatened to corrode the ideals of national service held in place by guardrails such as the auditor general, public protector and other democracy-supporting institutions.

The country weathered the individuals’ years in office for a variety of reasons: their affiliation with the once-credible parties, the disruptions of the Covid-19 pandemic and the efforts of professional civil service who tried to temper their most dangerous or unreasonable demands for diluting the separation of a political party and the state.

Most importantly, the country survived because of the people and institutions in the administration and civil society who proved strong enough to stand up to their efforts to undermine good governance and accountability.

It is instructive in the aftermath of the assault on our democracy to realise that some candidates will be wolves in sheepskin, plotting to use electoral support as a licence to continue looting public funds.

There will not be many brave whistle-blowers in our government should we make a mistake and re-elect the individuals. They have no interest in being restrained and will probably surround themselves with people who want to institutionalise the “it is our time to eat” doctrine.

Democracy in South Africa is robust, with a formidable multiparty and, possibly, a broad spectrum of coalitions to keep a diversity of thought alive on essential questions, such as the nation’s approaches to corruption, immigration, job creation, education, safety and security and fiscal responsibility.

With the introduction of independent parliamentarians in our politics, there should be room for honest disagreement on any of the topics and many more – and there is a long tradition of it across the South African experiment. But that is not what unscrupulous candidates are seeking.

Re-electing corrupt and incompetent candidates would seriously harm our nation’s democracy. This is a time not to sit passively but instead to re-engage critically. I appeal to South Africans to set aside their political differences, grievances and party affiliations and contemplate – as individuals, families, stokvels, parishes, clubs and councils – the undeniable magnitude of our political choices in the elections.

Nyembezi is a policy analyst, researcher and human rights activist

Cape Times