IT'S a morbid realisation that the ANC will win the 2024 election with an absolute rather than just a relative majority. Can South Africa really afford another five years of a spineless president and a cabinet with ministers like Bheki Cele, Lindiwe Zulu, Mondli Gungubele, Thandi Modise, Mmamoloko Kubayi, Gwede Mantashe, Noxolo Kiviet, Sihle Zikalala and Sindisiwe Chikunga? Can South Africa survive the state capture, corruption, cadre deployment and abuses of power of the ANC?
However, the larger reality is that opposition parties simply do not instil enough confidence in the citizenry to uproot the liberation party. Neither does a cohort of opinions wrapped in a loose philosophy of resentment. In a recent Victory Research opinion poll of 2,434 registered voters in KwaZulu-Natal, Rise Mzansi and One South Africa got nothing, zilch, zero votes. If nothing changes, by the end of 2024 we will once again come to the conclusion that South Africans no longer trust political parties or any other political configuration with their vote and will instead stay away on voting day.
I have put my hopes on Rise Mzansi in recent months, but like Victory Research I still don't see anything that will fill South Africans with sufficient political enthusiasm. It would appear that in 2024 there could be as many as 300 political parties involved in the national and provincial elections. Do we really need more political parties? In 2021, more people on polling day were preoccupied with the reality of survival in an impoverished economy than going to vote.
It is extremely unlikely that any of the existing opposition parties will be able to do anything in the months left until next year's election that can inspire millions of alienated and weathered voters to participate. And it's not like we don't realise this. The question is: how do South Africans begin to reverse the process of institutional decay and the accompanying civic disengagement?
When Mbali Ntuli announced in February 2020 that she was available for the post of federal leader of the DA, I really hoped the party would find an open mind and the courage to elect her, and that she could build a political home within the DA for black South Africans who can no longer tolerate the ANC. Too many opposition parties are committed to a sectarian identity instead of being a party for all South Africans.
Ntuli stood against the DA's interim leader, John Steenhuisen, and there was little doubt in my mind that she had a more intelligent understanding of competitive politics than he did. Criticising the DA, she said in her introduction: “I think our current leadership is in a state of panic. What they want to do is maintain the status quo and stabilise the party. But this is the wrong approach, because it means we stagnate and do not move with the changing circumstances."
She was right then and she is still right.
When I spoke to Mbali recently, I mentioned to her that a political party with herself, Lindiwe Mazibuko, Phumzile van Damme, Mpho Phalatse and Patricia Kopane could be a powerful phenomenon that deserves to grab the attention of a significant mass of cynical voters. How did this group of strong political leaders leave formal politics out of frustration at a time when we need them more than ever?
Here is part of our conversation:
Mbali, South African politics has a leadership problem. I simply do not see an intelligent, charismatic identity right now that can capture the imagination of South Africans and make a significant difference in the 2024 election. I am only being honest when I say that you and Lindiwe Mazibuko were my favourite politicians by the time you left the DA. What is your position now?
I see my role in politics very differently now. After I left politics, I really just wanted to focus on community work; the kind of things I thought we should have done in the DA. I am now trying to reach out to civil society in an effort to be involved with communities in a sustained and more strategic way. My interest was to alleviate the plight of civil society through empowerment, and political participation then becomes a logical consequence of this process. I simply did not want to get involved in another political party or even start a new one. If what we are doing is not having the planned outcomes, we simply have to start thinking about it differently.
For this you founded a new organisation?
I started an organisation called Ground Work Collective. We are concerned with the issue of food security, civil rights, and identifying the most appropriate skills for those excluded from the economy to engage. It is a process, not a moment of conviction. To meaningfully participate in something like an election, people must have sufficient knowledge and understanding of the system, but also see a worthy role for themselves in society. Civic empowerment is an important prerequisite for meaningful political participation.
How do you convince the youth to register and vote responsibly; unemployed people who do not yet pay tax or have a mortgage? A citizenry normally starts voting when the risk of being passive becomes too high.
You need to make sure they know what it means to be an active citizen and to hold politicians accountable in elections, but also, equally important, between elections. Because the youth do not necessarily have the interests you refer to, we must convince them that participating in politics can also be fun and enjoyable. For example, we convince the corporate sector to sponsor days during which musicians and actors with a public image get involved, and finally it becomes a process to register young voters. The importance of political participation does not have to be only via a political vote, it can also be a function of civic and social engagement.
Speaking of engagement, I see you are engaging with Heindrich Wyngaard, Solly Moeng, Lukhano Mnguni, Busi Mavuso and Theuns Eloff with the idea of engaging diverse voices in a single conversation. I think you call it Convergence4SA?
I have not been to a formal meeting of Convergence4SA, but from what I understand, it's a group of people who want to promote democracy and political participation in the run-up to next year's national elections. This is something I have been trying to do for quite some time as well. Convergence4SA's focus is also awareness-raising and ultimately the registration and empowerment of voters.
There are now several role players in that area?
Yes, Defend our Democracy also contacted us. I can help them and also Convergence4SA to make a broad spectrum of civil movements and organisations part of a national conversation about empowering voters.
And the focus is on young potential voters, I suppose?
Yes, but perhaps the potential involvement of young people should be thought of differently. Political parties are not really succeeding in tackling the problem of a disengaged youth. My organisation tries to convince young people to register by engaging them in non-political activities. In the process we also provide them with information regarding the workings of the political system, because it is very difficult to tell someone to vote for a ward councillor and they don't really know what councillors are supposed to do, and what kind of qualities voters should be looking for.
Do you think declining participation in elections can be attributed only, or largely to, ignorance of the value of democracy?
Definitely not! The fact of the matter is that political parties will urgently need to change their way of working. A recent opinion poll showed that 72% of South Africans no longer have confidence in democracy as a system and that they would give up the right to vote if it meant they could exchange participation for work, housing and security.
My aim is to influence the behaviour of voters by empowering them with an understanding of the system. It does not make sense that voters vote for every politician who promises jobs or land, but then those promises never materialise. We have one of the most participatory political systems in the world, but it is also the case that many people do not understand their role and responsibilities within the political system.
The conventional wisdom has it that the citizenry's understanding of the political system is a function of political parties. If the youth are therefore not registered, the blame is primarily laid at the door of political parties. And because we realise that shortcoming in the makeup of political parties, we know the solution to the problem probably lies in civic engagement rather than in formal politics. There is so much we can still do, things that are often restricted in the context of a political party's bureaucracy.
Are you prescriptive about who the youth should vote for? There will be many cynical and sceptical people who think that if you get the youth to participate, they will eventually be supportive of the EFF or even the ANC. Are you perhaps recruiting voters for political parties that are part of the problem rather than the solution?
People have to decide whether they believe in democracy or not, because the EFF is an established party in a multiparty democracy. If they have enough confidence that the youth can make important decisions, they should give people like me and others the money to do proper training with the right information. We are not prescriptive about where young voters should draw their crosses; it's about participation and holding politicians accountable. The youth must realise that if they want to do something about homelessness, unemployment, alienation and poverty, they will have to get involved in the political system.
Haven't South Africans just become voting cattle? Our problems are so much bigger than political participation.
I don't just want to register potential voters to be able to vote. I want to help them find work, I want to help kindergartens that don't qualify for state subsidies to survive financially, I want to make a difference where political parties can't or don't want to.
♦ VWB ♦
BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION: Go to the bottom of this page to share your opinion. We look forward to hearing from you.