David Letsoalo, Sankarist and Law Academic
David Letsoalo, Sankarist and Law Academic

How independent are `independents’ in our polity? Is it a fallacy or a reality?

By David Letsoalo Time of article published Oct 11, 2021

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IEC Local government elections 09 June 2021. The launch of the local government elections took place in Sandton on Wednesday. The IEC gave the green lights for elections in October amid some concerns that the elections could be a super spreader event Picture: Timothy Bernard/African News Agency(ANA)

This country is currently immersed in an electrifying atmosphere of elections where parties and individuals are hyped up about securing seats in the local government sphere, for various purposes and motives - genuine or fake.

This is the case in any election where the democratic system, shallow or deep, is in place. The political space is awash with fancy words and phrases which we have embraced or allowed ourselves to be entangled with.

We hardly interrogate the deeper meanings and implications of these phrases. We are thus susceptible to convenient narratives and manipulative discourses. And we have consequently normalized the unreal and the rhetorical!

A buzzword in the unfolding circumstances of the election season is the phrase “independent candidate”. At face value, the so-called independent candidates are assumed to be “independent”. Literally. That’s where the problem lies as this confused situation will, as it already has, impact on the psyche of the nation, particularly on the ordinary citizens of this country, Azania.

But a few questions are essential as we interrogate the notion of “independent” in “independent candidates”. In this vein, it may also be tempting to interrogate the veracity of “independent” in the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC). Is the IEC really independent?

Independent from what? From whom? Why is it important to have independent candidates? Why is there a sense of clout about independent candidates at the moment? Are these politicians really independent? Can electoral candidates or any politician really be independent? These questions require clear and honest responses.

The simplistic explanation in this regard is that such a politician is obviously independent from a political party. With regard to the IEC, the assumption is that such an entity is independent from the government, the ruling party or any other party for that matter. However, pragmatically, there are many signifiers or indications that point to the “un-independent” nature of such electoral bodies.

But, crudely, the IEC is dependent on the subjectivities of the people within its ranks and beyond, the state and corporate bodies for it to function effectively. Who pays the employees of the IEC for instance? Who appoints its officials or figureheads?

Coming back to the ‘Independent candidates”, we need to explore how “independent” these individuals are. The common refrain bandied about is the notion that independent candidates are “free” from the so-called dictatorship of the party. A further point of argument is that such politicians are an answer to the problem of “capture” precisely with the oratorial nugget that political parties are prone to capture. There is also the mythical notion that “independent candidates'' are not politicians, especially when they are conveniently on campaigning platforms or podiums.

This is quite ironic as logic should tell us that it should surely be more difficult to capture a party than a mere individual (read independent candidate).

This logic is extended to the claim that independent candidates are not corrupt, and that they are accountable to the people, rather than the party. Whatever that means. In my view, this is another fallacious, simplistic, if not shallow, proposition.

I ask the question, why are these so-called independents standing for elections? I consistently express my wish to miraculously get into other people’s minds to access their intentions and motives. I wish to access the minds of individual politicians to establish whether it is purely for the purpose of serving the people without expecting anything in return, or is it for the pursuance of some sort of “independent” (read selfish) agenda?

We know that most of the so-called independent candidates are individuals who are disgruntled with their own political parties for one reason or another. In most instances, these disgruntlements relate to disputes or contestations around positions, particularly the contest as to who finally appears on the party’s candidature list to be forwarded to the IEC, to eventually appear on the ballot paper of the electoral body.

I have recently made the observation that politicians generally, hardly driven by selflessness. We hardly find Thomas Sankaras, Steve Bikos and Robert Sobukwes in our polity. Instead, it’s all about the stomach. The obsession is really with how one reaches the feeding trough through an “independent” ticket or through the pipeline of a political party. The destination is the same!

What strikes me really hard is the ferocity and grave zeal by these politicians to be on the ballot paper “by any means necessary”. Some, like those within party structures, are prepared to engage violently, in addition to spending huge sums of money to ensure success in this endeavour.

The point that I mainly argue is that we should not be over excited by the notion of “independent” as if it is a solution to our problems, or the challenges of a political system mired by indiscretions of political parties. At the end of the day, we are dealing with humans or individuals with their own frailties.

It should be accepted that political parties are made up of individuals, and that the ideological postures of political parties are constructed by individuals, albeit in a collective setting. The idea of creating an antithesis of “individual versus party” is therefore baseless and highly exaggerated.

In the case of a party, the electorate or members of a party have a way of responding to the indiscretion and/or incompetence of a public representative by recalling that particular politician. We have seen how political parties have used their party muscle or mechanisms to sanction their representatives.

In the five-year term, for instance, how do you deal with the “independent” politician? Obviously, you might have to wait until after the expiry of the term in order for you to deal with a scoundrel or a charlatan. It is from this perspective that I see Mmusi Maimane’s One South Africa strategy to create a binding centre as a control measure for the “independent” politician not to be so loosely independent. That said, it needs to be pointed out that parties may also, on account of their party ethos and dynamics, abuse this power. It is thus for us to start reflecting on what the core issue in our polity is. It might very well be that the whole democratic system is imperfect, if not problematic.

We may run in circles blaming political parties or independent candidates, while the real problem lies in the democratic system itself. But we are so stuck in the narrative or axiom of “democracy” as the one and only system under the sun. I think we are in denial of the possibility of better alternatives or the possibility of the logic of post-democracy or beyond democracy. In addition, I do think that the democratic system is, ironically, expensive and indeed overrated.

Given the frailties of the democratic system with examples of proxyism and the so-called state capture, I am convinced that over time the billionaires, who are a real minority, will craft a silly mechanism or ploy by funding and fielding a swarm of “independent candidates” in various spheres of government to further their interests. Similarly, even well-resourced political parties may adopt this strategy to capture the independent candidates. The erstwhile “floor-crossing” tendencies have shown us this possibility.

As we speak, we seldom pause to question who funds most of these independent candidates, as much as we have battled with this question as it relates to political parties. It is only now with the recently promulgated Political Party Funding Act that we are beginning to get a sense of who funds some of our dominant political parties.

As I argued earlier, it is much easier to bribe an individual than the entire political party. The fact that it has been possible to capture a formidable party with a long “glorious” history of liberation struggle and discipline, it should concern us that it shouldn’t be any more difficult for these forces to snap or usurp a lone individual freestyling as an independent politician.

Therefore, what we might be thinking is “independent” might not necessarily be so. An interesting dimension, however, is that the Constitution, strictly speaking, grants political rights to an individual rather than a party. It assumes that it is individuals who are ultimately granted political rights, particularly to elect or be elected to serve in public office.

In other words, although recognizing the right to association, in the final analysis, political rights are extended to an individual. The relevant part of the Constitution in this regard is Section 19, which stipulates that “every adult citizen has the right to stand for public office and, if elected, to hold office”. It’s worth emphasizing that this right is granted to an individual citizen, rather than a juristic person or an organisation.

It is quite fascinating that most of the so-called independents will end up being enticed by political parties and essentially transfer their power or mandates to these parties, predictably as “kingmakers” in return for cushy positions in the executive structures of the various municipalities. This phenomenon is one of the elements that make the democratic system stink!

So, how do we resolve this dilemma? I think the answer lies in the building of a “conscious” citizenry. That is, the citizens should be educated in the sense of awakening their sense of discernment of leaders and their consciousness of the workings of our polity. An ignorant voter cannot hold scrupulous leaders to account.

We will therefore continue to have incompetent, pliable and morally bankrupt leaders in government, who work against the interests of the people, for as long as the citizens are gullible. It is only with the existence of a critical citizenry that the idea that “education is the ultimate liberator of humankind” becomes presciently apt.

The propagation for “independent candidates” carries the potential danger of demobilization or depoliticization of the masses or governance, and of reducing local government to a mere administrative provision of social services. This should, however, be juxtaposed to the grave disappointment by political parties, especially former liberation movements, in their discredited manner of governance predominated by corruption, nepotism, ineptitude, surreptitious consortium with capital as well as poor service delivery.

The fundamental issue, therefore, is not really whether you (s)elect a party or an “independent” candidate. Rather, it is indeed the ability by the citizens to discern and identify the type of cadre or representative that is driven by the love of his/her people as a servant leader.

David Letsoalo is a Sankarist, an activist and Law academic

Sunday Independent

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