There seems to be national and international consensus that this election is the most important since the end of apartheid. Many have argued that if the ANC doesn’t get a solid mandate under Cyril Ramaphosa’s leadership the liberals in the ANC will be seriously weakened, and an alliance between the corrupt and authoritarian nationalists in the ANC and the EFF could seize control of the country.
The result of this would be, almost all analysts agree, a rapid turn to authoritarianism and open looting.
There would be massive emigration and capital flight, and the country would quickly be turned into another wasteland like Zimbabwe.
Some usually sober voices have argued that Ramaphosa is “the last chance for democracy”. This is the view of powerful forces abroad and locally. This is not an overreaction. Anyone with even a basic understanding of global politics or history will shudder with deep fear at the thought of people like Malema, Magashule and Mabuza running South Africa.
But while all right-thinking people welcome Ramaphosa’s push back against corruption, the liberal economics that he champions is not sustainable. Mainstream liberal economics offers no viable route to social inclusion for the millions of unemployed.
For years in major democracies the main political parties could not be a serious player without massive financial backing. The result was that all contenders represented the super-rich.
In these kinds of societies elections largely functioned as a public ritual to legitimise the power of elites.
But all that changed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis with the emergence of right- and left-wing forms of populism. If the US presidency candidates in the next election are Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders the election will have very real stakes for the future.
The American example is not anomalous. In countries across the world electorates have turned away from the liberal centre and embraced right- and left-wing populism. Electoral politics has become polarised - a very high stakes game.
We should not expect South Africa to be an exception. Populism has not only appeared within the ANC and the EFF. This election is also an important test for new forces in our politics, like the right-wing populists in the ATM, and the old-school communists in Numsa’s workers’ party, the SRWP.
If the new right-wing populism, or old forms of leftism, do better than expected they could shape our politics in important ways.
The ATM has a base in the churches, and the SRWP has one in the unions. This election will show if either party can translate a well organised base into votes. Success by the ATM would push our politics in a more conservative direction with scapegoating substituted for the work of building a just and flourishing economy.
The old school Marxism of the SRWP wouldn’t work in a modern economy. But if the party does well it could push the ANC towards a more social democratic project, which would be very good news indeed.
But while the stakes are rapidly escalating, across the globe, there is also a significant disenchantment with electoral politics. In South Africa this sense of disenchantment with electoral politics isn’t just about the ANC after the disaster of the Zuma years.
Many DA supporters feel their party has lost its way. The EFF still stirs fervour in some but many of its early supporters are deeply disillusioned by corruption scandals and reports of authoritarianism in the party.
Many people report they will vote but will do so with no real belief in any of the options. But while they feel that all the major parties are seriously flawed they have not disengaged.
A huge chunk of the population will not vote because they are not registered. More than 6 million young people - more than half of the electorate between 18 and 30 - are not registered to vote. This shows a profound alienation from electoral politics.
It’s also often reported that communities devastated by service delivery protests are refusing to vote. There was a period when organised movements of the urban poor, now embodied by Abahlali baseMjondolo, actively called for organised boycotts of elections. But Abahlali baseMjondolo, which has grown into significant size, has now called for a collective vote against the ANC, and for “the left”.
The trajectory of the “no vote” position seems to indicate that it occurs when people first break with the ANC and then, after some time, turns into support for alternative parties. For this reason we shouldn’t see the declarations of a refusal to vote in protesting communities as permanent alienation from electoral politics but a phase in their break with the ANC.
However, if half of the youth, where unemployment is most concentrated, have not bothered to register to vote we are dealing with a very significant structural alienation from electoral politics. If the economically excluded are also alienated from electoral politics their exclusion from constructive participation in society will be profound. The outcomes of this kind of profound exclusion - and at such a massive scale - can only be profoundly dangerous for democracy.
We need, with utmost urgency, to give serious thought to the crisis of youth exclusion, and place it at the centre of our national conversation - and politics.
* Buccus is senior research associate at ASRI, research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and academic director of a university study abroad programme on political transformation.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.