19 May 2019 — Terry Bell Writes
Most South Africans are probably more than ready for an alternative political dispensation. That much seems clear, given the results of last week’s national and provincial elections where the gatvol [fed up] factor was in full play.
It was undoubtedly fuelled further by the release this week of the Labour Force Survey for the first quarter of this year. It revealed that, on the probably more accurate extended definition of joblessness, 38% of the working age population is unemployed.
However, last week, if nothing else, most workers, employed and unemployed, showed that they are not gullible voting fodder; that they are dissatisfied with what is on offer in the parliamentary dispensation. This applied particularly to those in that important adult age bracket of 18 to 30.
According to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) 6 million of this younger group failed even to register to vote. And it is likely that many of those who registered but did not vote were also in this age bracket.
This should not be seen as a sign of apathetic contentment with the status quo. It was a protest at the absence of any acceptable alternative. The point is: what sort of alternative is required and how can it be achieved?
So far, little has been said about the promise by the ANC that the proportional representation list system — a compromise agreed 1994 — would be changed by 2004 to one promising greater accountability. Yet change is now clearly wanted.
In the past, South African politics has been burdened with the demand for loyalty and unity; loyalty to leaders linked to the demand for unity of party and/or ethnic group. Such a mould clearly existed and it is now broken, with even the small surge in support for the now linguistic nationalists of the Freedom Front Plus (FF+) not amounting to a retreat into a “whites only” Afrikaner laager.
The increase in the FF+ vote parallels the rise in the membership, mentioned in a recent column, of the “Christian, nationalist and mainly Afrikaner” trade union, Solidarity. But, on a trade union services level, Solidarity has generally done well for its members while the FF+ provided a sound and sensible image in parliament, so the increase may be more pragmatic than ideological.
The stark fact — using IEC figures, conservatively rounded — is that, at most, only 50% of the total potential electorate cast their votes last week. This is calculated on at least 9.2 million who did not register and 9 million who registered, but did not vote. To which may be added at least some, if not most, of the spoiled ballots.
The result is a government supported by an even smaller majority of the voting population than the 38% given to the ANC in 2014. With roughly 58% of the 2019 votes, the ANC has the polled support of some 29% of the electorate, a worrying figure, however it is assessed. This should be even more worrying for the opposition parties.
The electorate’s reaction to 48 parties on the national list was also perhaps an indication of the fact that most South Africans are dissatisfied with almost everything that was on offer. However, some commentators claimed that the sheer number meant that real choices were available and should have been welcomed. This was nonsense and spoiling ballots or abstaining were perfectly logical steps to take, given that the choices on offer were all merely variations on the same theme or worse.
Worse were those parties, such as the Black First, Land First and the African Transformation Movement (ATM) that were clearly fronting for specific interests. But the ATM was banking on the loyalty of the claimed 1m million-plus potential voters who make up the flock of the Council of Messianic Churches in Christ from which the ATM emerged.
Also probably banking on a loyal base was the Socialist Revolutionary Workers’ Party (SRWP) formed by the country’s largest trade union, the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) and headed by its general secretary, Irvin Jim. Numsa is also affiliated to the perhaps 750 000-strong SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu).
In the event, the ATM was supported by 76 626 votes, gaining two seats in parliament. The SRWP garnered just 24 439 and no seats, revealing that vague promises, even if peppered with revolutionary rhetoric, have little traction.
However, the SRWP did, in its manifesto, state that participation in parliament was a tactic, a mere platform from which to speak to the revolutionary masses on the streets. This is certainly a view long held by Left groups with mindsets still stuck in events of more than a century ago in the autocratic duma of Tsarist Russia.
The long, bitter and often bloody struggle for the vote was one waged by working people around the world who saw the franchise in parliamentary democracies as the answer to a just and equitable society. But the vote did not change much at a fundamental level as parliamentarians, with the votes of workers, became the effective foremen — the management structure — of an unequal society.
So the debate now should be what kind of electoral system do we want? And what kind of parliament? Should MPs, elected by constituencies, be wholly answerable to — and recallable by — their constituencies? In other words, if is it possible to truly give power to the people, how should this be done`?
Such arguments have been vaguely mooted. Perhaps, as we coast toward the next municipal elections, with their combined ward and proportional system, they should be seriously dealt with.