HOW can more South Africans be persuaded to go to the polls this year? In 2021, just 45.59% of the more than 26 million registered voters did so, the smallest percentage since 1994. An even more challenging question is, under what circumstances will South Africans decide to vote for a party other than the ANC?
Rise Mzansi released its election manifesto in the past week, and in the days to come several other parties plan to do the same. There are great truths in the Rise Mzansi document about our political and economic decay. The undertakings and promises are pragmatic and sensible. There is clearly also a realisation that the ideals of the liberation philosophy cannot be completely abandoned, and several references in the manifesto emphasise the value of black empowerment in the economy's value and supply chains.
Songezo Zibi seems to realise that, ironically, opposition parties are likely to persuade more voters to vote for them by following policies as close as possible to those of the ANC. The social values of redistribution are part of our national psyche and are not negotiable for most South Africans, especially in conditions where 43% of them are unemployed or have even stopped looking for work.
The question then is: how does the population become convinced that a party other than the ANC will be able to carry out the ANC's policies more effectively and less corruptly? At least I have more confidence in Rise Mzansi than in any other party that its leadership realises what it will take to challenge the ANC at the polls. But as things stand there is no indication or reason why Zibi's party can count on more than 2% of votes cast. If Rise Mzansi uses its manifesto as a basis to motivate the electorate, the inspiration may just be too limited to get 7.8 million unemployed people out of bed on polling day.
Having said that, few people read election manifestos. The decision about where to mark your ballot paper is more likely to be based on public conversation than the codified but idealistic intentions stated in these documents. Yet manifestos give analysts a good impression of the ideological thrust that political parties presume will speak to voters. In that respect Rise Mzansi is ideologically well placed, but the question remains, what will motivate people to vote for it rather than for the ANC or any other party? What will change the identity-driven voting patterns of our opposition politics to those reflecting a universal or common good?
In distressed conversations with people who share my immediate identity, I often hear that “black people will always vote for the ANC", so it doesn't really matter that the DA does well at running the Western Cape, or that a significant number of opposition parties have their finger on the trigger when it comes to immigrants, or that most party manifestos declare almost the same intentions as the ANC when it comes to the state's social functions, or that Luthuli House and the government continue to rob the poorest of the poor.
In other words, there is nothing political parties, the media or simple logic can do to diminish the hope that voters have for the ANC. And after 2021, our suspicions were confirmed: voters alienated by the ANC would rather stay away from the polls than vote for an opposition party.
The reality is of course even more complicated and confirms how out of touch most opposition parties are with the interests of voters. In 2019, only 28% of all eligible voters (34 million people) voted for the ANC, and in 2021 only 15%. Something tells me this is a massive vote of no confidence in the ANC. Put another way, in the previous provincial and national elections (2019), 72% of potential voters decided not to vote for the ANC. Opposition parties simply need to find a way to become an alternative to the ANC. They cannot continue relying only on identity-driven voting to motivate their limited support bases.
There is evidence that the ANC has betrayed the trust of ordinary South Africans, but as Zibi has noted, opposition parties must be careful not to create the impression that the liberation struggle philosophy no longer has value for ordinary people. The residents of informal settlements and townships are angry with the ANC but still cherish South Africa's liberation history.
Even the most disempowered South Africans are likely to suffer in angry silence. The most obvious manifestation of this is the so-called service delivery violence that often escalates before elections. That said, this phenomenon is often the result of local leaders competing for political positions within their respective parties than necessarily being specifically motivated by poor service delivery.
Yet in almost no other volatile democracy is the citizenry as incapable of revolutionary action as in South Africa. This angry silence manifests itself more readily in the kind of criminality experienced in July 2021 than in 7.8 million angry and unemployed people showing up at the Union Buildings or Luthuli House to demand regime change. This is one of the strange phenomena of our political sociology; during apartheid, millions of South Africans were willing to take on the repressive state directly, but the dream of economic freedom clearly does not provide the same impetus as the pursuit of political freedom.
I sometimes wonder if the EFF would not have done better at the ballot box if Julius Malema had directed his fabricated populism towards the Union Buildings instead of pursuing artificial feuds with the government and its ineffective policies or with the white privilege of the DA. The fight over economic policy is inconclusive and distracts attention from the real reasons for the angry silence of the disempowered masses.
However, it is not as if South Africans never had the opportunity to experience populism. Jacob Zuma and Malema both sought their political salvation in populism. Unlike Zuma, Malema does not try to garner support by arousing sympathy; instead he drives a quasi-militant populism by targeting white privilege. Neither of these politicians has been significantly successful so far, and one of the reasons is the collective scepticism of mature South Africans towards the economic claims of political leaders. We simply don't believe them any more, and declining participation in elections is one of the things that confirms this claim.
For populism to have a measurable effect, it must challenge the political establishment. Perhaps this is a message that Rise Mzansi can also take to heart; to emphasise the reality that the ANC has committed treason against the honoured philosophy of political liberation. To make this idea stand, a measure of political populism will be necessary, rather than the economic populism of the EFF.
Theoretically, South Africa probably needs a typical South American revolution to unseat the ANC. In fact, the conditions for such a revolution already exist. Political parties wishing to mobilise the citizenry at the ballot box will first have to undertake a punitive expedition to the seats of political power: the Union Buildings and Luthuli House.
After that, the next steps are more evident. Voters clearly feel marginalised or excluded from the political process and populist candidates can exploit these sentiments by presenting themselves as outsiders who will challenge the political establishment and disrupt the status quo. It should resonate with millions of disempowered and impoverished voters who are dissatisfied and want immediate change. For these purposes, economic change takes too long. The focus should instead be on matters such as immigration, national identity or social values; issues that may resonate strongly with segments of the population. Voters who feel their cultural identity is threatened may be drawn to candidates who promise to protect it. The Inkatha Freedom Party proved this in the 1990s.
Successful populist leaders often use simple, direct communication and avoid traditional language that focuses on constructive policies. This makes their message more accessible and relatable to a broader audience. Cyril Ramaphosa's high-end, market-oriented language is good for an international audience but does nothing to sway the informal economy and township politics. A political candidate who effectively uses the media, including social media, to communicate directly with voters by bypassing traditional gatekeepers might just hit the spot in the run-up to the 2024 election. Such direct communication can create a strong connection between candidates and their supporters.
Without a doubt, there is a general lack of trust in established political institutions, and populist candidates can position themselves as reliable alternatives. So, individualise the principles of institutions. Vladimir Putin of Russia wins one election after another by hijacking constitutional institutions himself, rather than through the party he represents.
We already know that bread-and-butter issues mediated by redistribution still have the greatest effect on voting patterns. Research by the University of Johannesburg has shown that the state's monthly social grants, and the fear of them being taken away, continue to attract significant support for the ANC. This makes even the unemployed vote for the ANC, even though the reasons for the grants are related to government economic policies that discourage job creation in the first place. Most people who receive grants have probably been disempowered and alienated from the market economy for so long that the possibility of entering the labour market is too remote to serve as a motivation to vote for another party. Half of all 19-year-olds will probably not hold a position in the formal job market in their lifetime.
Populist candidates often promise economic policies that appeal to the political concerns of the workers and middle class. These could include measures such as protectionist trade policies, job-creation initiatives partly financed by the National Treasury and the redistribution of wealth. These are all political policies with economic consequences, but they rely on regime change.
Rise Mzansi is one of the few parties trying to garner universal support rather than engaging in identity politics, but repeatedly pointing out the ANC's weaknesses is more discouraging than inspirational. South Africans already know the weaknesses of the ANC: its corruption, lies and illiterate understanding of complex economic systems. Tell us what we don't know. To win an election, we need a political revolution, not economic promises.
♦ VWB ♦
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