South Africans, the ball is in your court

The perception is that with 52 parties on the ballot paper, South Africans are spoilt for choice. However, far from democratising the political process, this may serve to destabilise the system, says the writer. Picture: Leon Lestrade/Independent Newspapers.

The perception is that with 52 parties on the ballot paper, South Africans are spoilt for choice. However, far from democratising the political process, this may serve to destabilise the system, says the writer. Picture: Leon Lestrade/Independent Newspapers.

Published May 29, 2024


It would be downright presumptuous to tell any of South Africa’s 27 672 264 registered voters which party to cast their vote for in Wednesday’s potentially historic general election – the seventh since the advent of post-apartheid democratic polity in 1994.

Voting supposedly is a very personal affair confined to the conscience and socio-political-cum-ideological preference of the individual voter in the privacy of the ballot box, enshrined in any self-respecting democratic constitution as an inalienable right of citizens concomitant with a beauty parade of freedoms and equalities – freedom of voter registration, of association, of speech, of forming parties, of electoral campaigning, and equitable access to state and commercial broadcast and print media outlets, albeit in proportion to the size and number of candidates fielded by any given party.

All supervised by an independent electoral commission and unencumbered by state, political or police harassment or barriers to electoral participation. Above all, elections must not only be done on a free and fair basis but must also be seen to have been done on that basis.

South Africa, warts and all, thanks to one of the most progressive Constitutions (1996) and Bill of Rights in global liberal democracy, should be commended that since 1994 and in six general elections, has largely served as an exemplar electoral system bereft of the wide-scale violence as in some African states, and shenanigans pertaining to the politics of race regarding voter registration denial as in some southern states in the US; disputes over the integrity of the electoral process and therefore the result of the poll aka George Bush and Donald Trump in two past US presidential polls; the nefarious pastimes of political lobbying, party funding and ‘money politics’ where parties and candidates literally give cash handouts to buy votes; and the disconcerting trend where political leaders saw fit to force through dubious constitutional changes to extend their terms of office beyond the statutory two terms.

How revealing that some three weeks prior to election day, President Cyril Ramaphosa saw fit to sign into law two new bills with a direct material effect on the elections – the Second Adjustments Appropriation Bill and the Electoral Matters Amendment Bill aimed at expanding financial resources for the country’s multiparty democracy including political party funding and the controversial issue of private sector political donations, including support for independent candidates and representatives.

Come today, compatriots will be confronted with the stark choices of ‘continuity’, ‘confidence’ or ‘change’.

President Ramaphosa when signing the two Bills into law maintained: “In a year in which voters are presented with the greatest diversity of electoral choice, the legislation that is now enacted constitutes tangible, material support for a vibrant, competitive, open and equitable electoral system and democratic culture.”

In some respects the president shot himself in the foot when he insisted on inviting the ruling Zanu-PF in Zimbabwe, with its highly dubious democratic credentials, to send observers to our very own poll fest.

The perception is that we South Africans are spoilt for choice, at least at the ballot box. Never mind the warnings of fragmentation of the global economy (read protectionism) by Kristalina Georgieva – not your archetypal western-centred apparatchik but of Bulgarian heritage.

We are confronted with electoral fragmentation which, contrary to the president’s over-exuberant sentiments of vibrant electoral competitiveness could lead us down the slippery slope of even greater division, which also contradicts the very spirit of Ubuntu’s community ethos.

A staggering 52 parties, according to the IEC, are registered for General Election 2024. With 27 672 264 registered voters, this translates into one party for every 532 159 voters.

This ratio, far from democratising the political process, may serve to destabilise the very system. After all universal franchise, electoral access and now even party-political funding are entrenched within our Constitution and laws. Several of the 52 parties are bordering on the frivolous and many more could become state political funding dependent. One of the parties even touts the name of its founder. The last thing a vibrant political system needs is yet another dependency.

The country may have already started to sleepwalk down the road to the much-avowed coalition government on the back of poll predictions of a hung Parliament in which the ruling ANC is projected to lose its absolute majority for the first time since 1994 but would remain the single largest party by far. Pollsters by their very nature are fickle.

The last thing we want to see is a voter cohort that too is fickle –beguiled by the promises of even more handouts, cadre deployment, radical policies, gratuitous fear mongering, resetting to a more market-based neo-liberal orthodoxy.

The factors voters should consider on their way to the corridor of ballot box power are:

i) Voting in a democratic election is not merely a right but a must short of compulsory voting. No excuse of ‘apathy’, ‘disillusionment with the system’, ‘marginalisation’ – increasingly typical of the GenZ – can trump participation.

After all millions at home and abroad have sacrificed – many with their lives – for the right to exercise their vote.

ii) It’s no use blaming your elders for your own shortcomings, especially when you can do something to affect the narrative or incumbent change.

You are just paying lip service to the social media bling bling and commercialisation of politics by dismissing engagement.

iii) Voters are usually driven by their immediate self-interest, which is only human. This pertains to all the societal considerations – cost-of-living, jobs, prices, healthcare, education, and well-being.

The brave intervention of Naledi Pandor’s foreign policy especially relating to the plight of Palestinians in Gaza and the release of Israeli hostages, including women and children, held by Hamas, and Palestinian political prisoners, including women and children, held without trial by Israel, has pushed foreign policy to the forefront of the election.

iv) After 30 years of voting, South Africans are mature enough to decide whether they can trust any incumbent to continue and therefore forgive them for their debilities, perhaps subject to forcing them into a limited coalition, or whether it is time for a change and therefore a complete break with the past 30 years of democratic rule or 112 years of ANC struggle for freedom and justice.

Today, you South Africans have the power to be the All-forgiving Electoral Deity for the greater good of an eventually free and fair polity that promised to be a beacon of freedom, dignity and delivery, or the Supreme Disruptor of the 30-year ‘democracy project’ that was the dream of so many fallen heroes over the century that in a space of a mere decade degenerated into an orgy of self-interest, cronyism, dysfunction, marginalisation and division.

The ball, my dear compatriots, is firmly in your court!

* Parker is a writer based in London

Cape Times