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33000The Real Story of South Africa's National Elections

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  • Cort Greene
    May 11 3:36 PM

      The Real Story of South Africa's National Elections

      By Dale T. McKinley · 11 May 2014

      No sooner had the final results of the recently concluded 2014 national elections been announced than President Zuma gave a predictably self-congratulatory speech lauding the result as “the will of all the people”. The reality however is that the ANC’s victory came from a distinct minority of “the people”. The real ‘winner’, as has been the case since the 2004 elections, was the stay away ‘vote’.

      Since South Africa’s first-ever democratic elections in 1994, the hard facts are that there has been a directly proportionate relationship between the overall decline in support for the ANC and the rise of the stay away ‘vote’. A quick look at the relevant percentages/numbers from each election confirms the reality.

      1994: Of the 23 063 910 eligible voters, 85,53 percent (19 726 610) voted while the remaining 14,47 percent (3 337 300) stayed away. The ANC received support from 53,01 percent (12 237 655) of the eligible voting population.

      1999: Of the 25 411 573 eligible voters, 62,87 percent (15 977 142) voted while the remaining 37,13 percent (9 434 431) stayed away. The ANC received support from 41,72 percent (10 601 330) of the eligible voting population.

      2004: Of the 27 994 712 eligible voters, 55,77 percent (15 612 671) voted while the remaining 44,23 percent (12 382 041) stayed away. The ANC received support from 38,87 percent (10 880 917) of the eligible voting population.

      2009: Of the 30 224 145 eligible voters, 59,29 percent (17 919 966) voted while the remaining 40,71 percent (12 304 179) stayed away. The ANC received support from 38,55 percent (11 650 748) of the eligible voting population.

      2014: Of the 31 434 035 eligible voters, 59,34 percent (18 654 457) voted while the remaining 40,66 percent (12 779 578) stayed away. The ANC received support from 36,39 percent (11 436 921) of the eligible voting population.

      It is quite an amazing ‘storyline’ with two key tropes. At the same time that South Africa’s eligible voting population - based on estimates of successive census’s -  has increased by 8,4 million in twenty years of democracy,  the amount of that population which has chosen not to vote has increased by 9,4 million. Simultaneously, electoral support for the ANC, as a percentage of that voting population, has declined precipitously from 53 to 36 percent.  

      One of the main reasons why this ‘story’ is most often buried in the margins of our political and electoral conversations and consciousness is that the official version conveniently ignores primarily those citizens (a majority of whom are young people between the ages of 18-20) who have not registered to vote and secondarily, those who have registered but chosen not to vote. It is similar to the politically-inspired and artificially constructed distinction between the ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ unemployment rate which has the effect of erasing millions from the officially recognised ranks of the unemployed.

      As a result, the official version of these latest national elections (in many cases, mirrored by the media) is one in which there is a “high voter turnout” and where the ANC victory is presented as indicative of support from the “majority of voters”. And so it is that the almost 13 million who decided not to participate in the 2014 elections (whether registered or not) are effectively airbrushed from the picture, while the 11,5 million who voted for the ANC become “the people”. Stalin would be smiling approvingly.

      What does this largely hidden tale tell us about the state of South Africa’s political system and more broadly, of our democracy? Firstly, that a growing portion of the adult (voting age) population, but concentrated amongst the youth, has become alienated from the political system. In societies like South Africa which are framed by a liberal capitalist socio-political order, the mere existence and functioning of representative democratic institutions and processes increasingly mask the decline of meaningful popular democratic participation and control. This, in a context where elections have become the political playground of those with access to capitalist patronage and where electoral choice is largely reduced to different shades of grey.

      Since the act of voting in such national elections is itself representative of either a belief in/acceptance of, the existing order or that meaningful change can result from such an act, the counter-act of not voting can be seen as representative of the opposites. In other words, there is no necessary or inherent connection between voting and the deepening of democracy in ways that can make a systemic difference in the lives of those who feel/ experience exclusion and marginalisation. 

      This speaks to a reality which those on the ‘other side of the fence’ appear wholly unwilling to face; that for some time now, almost half of South Africans able to vote clearly do not see voting as being in their social, material and political interests. Apathy is simply a convenient and patronising ‘explanation’. It also speaks to the refusal to recognise that the (pre) conditions for meaningful and popular participation in any representational act or process are embedded in changing the structural relations of power, whether grounded in social, economic, political, gender or knowledge relations.

      Indeed, the developmental legacy of post-1994 South Africa has been, and continues to be, characterised by the false twinning of a democratic form to the needs of a capitalist ‘market’. This has resulted in a creeping intolerance – fuelled predominately by those in positions of political and economic power and policed by the coercive capacity of the state - of legitimate political/social dissent, which is the lifeblood of any genuine democracy. It has also produced a situation wherein institutionalised practices and forms of representative democracy such as elections – while largely accepted as a legitimate form of democratic expression - make little practical difference in the lives of so many since the key societal (developmental) decisions are taken by those that participate in, and manage, that ‘market’.

      In his post-election speech President Zuma stated that the ANC’s electoral victory represents an “overwhelming mandate from our people … and reaffirms that the ANC remains the only true hope for the majority of our people”. Clearly, he and his organisation have not read the whole story.

      Dr. McKinley is an independent writer, researcher and lecturer as well as political activist.

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      On Abahlali baseMjondolo Voting for the DA in Durban

      By Richard Pithouse · 9 May 2014

      Durban, the city where Jacob Zuma has his firmest urban base, is a hard place to do politics. A good number of the people who have attained political power in this city after apartheid learnt their politics during the civil war in the 1980s. Threats of violence are common from the top to the bottom of the ruling party’s local hierarchy and violence, including murder, is often used as a mechanism of social control. David Bruce estimates that there have been around 450 political murders in KwaZulu-Natal since 1994. In some parts of Durban it is common for local councillors to move around with men bristling with guns and menace.

      There have been moments when key figures in local party structures, including the mayor, have presented their politics, and their conception of who has rights in this city, in ethnic terms. Mpondo people have been scapegoated for both popular dissent and the growing number of shacks in the city and have been told to ‘go back to Lusikisiki’.

      In this city the conflation of the ruling party with the state is also more advanced than in some other cities with the result that development is brazenly mediated through local party structures. It is not at all unusual for party membership to be a precondition of access to what goods and services the state does provide to the poor. One result of this is that corruption is not just a way to arrange personal accumulation via the state but is also a mode of social control. Corruption is not a dirty secret. On the contrary it is celebrated as a route to a certain kind of personal success and power. On the weekend before the election S’bu and Shauwn Mpisane, who have become fabulously wealth from the city’s low cost housing programme, hosted a beachfront party for the ANC, reported to have a cost a million rand where, along with Khanyi Mbau and various musicians and soap stars, Khulubuse Zuma was a high profile guest.

      Around the country municipalities tend to try and contain the urban poor, and in particular the popular appropriation of land and services, in ways that are unlawful and violent. But in some cities the law is adhered to if a court demands this. In Durban there has been brazen disregard for court orders. And in this city the brutality with which the local state uses violence as a routine tool of governance is often extraordinary. In October last year nine people were shot, and two killed, in an operation to disconnect people from electricity in a shack settlement in Reservoir Hills.

      Yet of all the cities in South Africa it is in Durban that the largest, best organised and most sustained attempt to organise a popular constituency outside of the ANC has been developed. For nine years Abahlali baseMjondolo have organised independently of the ANC in Durban’s shanty towns. Now that AMCU has attained mass support, NUMSA is breaking with the ANC and the EFF has broken with the ANC, popular organisation outside of the ruling party is becoming an ordinary fact of political life. But when Abahlali baseMjondolo first refused to vote for the ANC in 2006, or when they first marched on Jacob Zuma in 2010, their politics was understood as heretical.

      From the beginning the ANC approached the movement as if it was fundamentally illegitimate and over the last nine years has repeatedly stated that it is a project of ‘third force’, an attempt by foreign powers to undermine the ANC. In a striking continuity with colonial practices the political agency of the people that have built and sustained the movement has been denied and white agency has been imagined to be the hidden hand behind its growing power in the city. Perfectly legal modes of struggle have been banned, presented in criminal terms and, fairly frequently, met with state violence.

      Factions of the middle class left, suffering under the narcissistic and sometimes plainly raced delusion that when popular opposition to the ANC emerged it would do so under their authority, and in accordance with their political desires, have sometimes responded to movement’s independence with very similar tropes to those evoked by the ANC. In some cases the left has understood the movement via an a prior investment in the standard set of prejudices applied to black poor in elite society. There has also been grotesque slander, dishonest and malicious, that has extended to propagandizing in support of state repression.

      Repression has ebbed and flowed. It has, above all else, been international solidarity, and access to the elite public sphere abroad, that has enabled the movement to, for three periods, shift its engagement with the state off the terrain of violence and intimidation and into negotiation. The first period of serious repression came to a head in 2009 when, over a period of months, leading members of the movement had their homes demolished by armed men identifying themselves in ethnic terms and as ANC members. These men acted with the sanction of the police and the ANC and this period of repression included open death threats, violence, torture and attempts to fabricate criminal charges against some of the movement’s members following which some people spent almost a year in prison. One of these men committed suicide after his release from prison.

      The second period of serious repression came to a head last year and centred around the Marikana Land Occupation in a part of Cato Crest adjacent to a formerly white suburb. Two activists were assassinated and a number of others shot, arrested and beaten. The movement’s attempt to subordinate the state to the rule of law via the courts succeeded in principle with successful actions in court but failed in practice as the Municipality ignored the court. The movement’s attempt to use its large support across the city to exercise disruptive power by organising simultaneous rush hour road blockades thrust it into the heart of the elite public sphere but was met with a ruthless response from the state. A seventeen year old girl was executed by the police with a shot to the back of the head. Death threats were openly made against a number of the best known figures in the movement including, in one case, live on radio. In this moment of heightened repression it was an article in The Guardian that finally shifted this conflict off the terrain of violence and into negotiation.

      Over the last nine years the movement has become very effective at stopping evictions, and organising or supporting land occupations some of which have been undertaken away from the public glare and one of which has become a major point of public contention. This work has made it impossible for the ANC to carry out its programme of mass evictions and forced removals to the urban periphery and so the movement has been quite successful in opposing new forms of spatial segregation.

      The movement has also forced through important changes in how the Municipality relates to shack dwellers. As a result of struggle it is now, for instance, committed to providing electricity and ablution blocks to shack settlements. However it has been extremely difficult to effectively challenge the way in which development is mediated through local party structures. Concessions won by the movement are often likely to be delivered by ANC councillors, through ANC structures to ANC members. The movement has also managed to effectively oppose xenophobia in the areas where it is strong and to sustain a non-ethnic politics in which young people, and in many cases young women, have played a central role.

      People from around the world who have spent time with the movement have been deeply impressed with its deliberative and democratic practices. These are uniformly attested to by academics and others who have spent long periods of time with the movement.

      However the movement faces many challenges. There are more or less constant attempts by parties and NGOs to co-opt individuals, communities sometimes join the movement as a collective act bringing in their political assumptions and practices that do not always fit well with the movement’s politics. The degree of bureaucratisation that has been required to manage the movement’s growth has meant that some power has shifted to its office. As time goes on some people have come under intense pressure from their families to translate their commitment, something that often carries real risks, into a livelihood. And repression has created all kinds of problems. Entirely legitimate concerns about security have sometimes crowded out other concerns, like ongoing processes of political education via collective discussion.

      As security concerns escalate older men, some who passed through the civil war in the 1980s, have become more prominent in the movement. And, as so often happens in popular struggles, when people are living under acute stress and resources to offer protection in terms of things like safe accommodation and transport are limited this can manifest in internal tensions. Nonetheless despite the strains and fractures resulting from recent repression the movement’s leaders continue to be elected and important decisions to be produced out of democratic processes.

      One of these processes, which even those deeply unhappy with the outcome agree was democratic, led the movement to offer a tactical vote for the Democratic Alliance (DA) in KwaZulu-Natal in the recent election. The movement has made it clear that this does not mean that it embraces the DA’s policies and that it will not join the DA. Given that the DA runs a an exclusionary urban regime in Cape Town that is often predicated on state violence and illegality, and that its policies are generally to the right of those of the ANC, it is unsurprising that this decision has shocked some people. But we should recall that one of the reasons why other organisations on the left would never come to a decision like this is that they are often not democratic and, in most cases, do not have a large constituency organised via communities.

      However the manner in which this decision has been subject to all kinds of conspiracy theory, all of which are predicated on an inability to recognise the political agency of people who are poor and black is troubling. And while anyone who has taken the time to understand how the decision was made, and its rationale, is perfectly within their rights to offer an opinion on its wisdom it is also unfortunate that in some quarters it seems to be assumed that people who have to make their lives in shacks, in material conditions that are often life threatening, and who have to confront serious and possibly life threatening repression, do not have the right to make their own decisions about how they should respond to their circumstances.

      The decision to offer a tactical vote to the DA, overwhelmingly supported from below and in opposition to the leadership’s own thinking, is largely a reaction to repression. People had a sense that they simply couldn’t carry on with a situation in which they could be subject to violence, including murder, with impunity. It is a decision to oppose the ANC directly and to punish it for its repression by offering a tactical vote to its largest and most effective rival in the province. The members of the movement that voted for it to make a tactical vote for the DA did not identify with the DA’s policies but generally felt that the left alternatives had no real prospects of making any impact at the polls in KwaZulu-Natal.

      This decision brings to an end a nine year sequence of struggle that has been resolutely independent from party politics.  But it is too early to say what it will mean in the medium or long term. It could essentially leave things as they are, it could encourage the DA, and other political parties, to take the circumstances and struggles of the urban poor more seriously if they want to court this vote and it could result in some sort of enmeshment, organisationally and ideologically, between the DA and Abahlali baseMjondolo. The last outcome would, of course, be a major setback for attempts to challenge the exclusionary and repressive urban order in our cities, as well as attempts to build popular democratic power outside of the ruling party that can be articulated to a broader project for progressive social change.

      Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

      All of SACSIS' originally produced articles, videos, podcasts and transcripts are licensed under a Creative Commons license.

      Should you wish to republish this SACSIS article, please attribute the author and cite The South African Civil Society Information Service as its source.

      For more information about our Copyright Policy, please click here.

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      For regular and timely updates of new SACSIS articles, you can also follow us on Twitter @SACSIS_News and/or become a SACSIS fan on Facebook.

      You can find this page online at http://sacsis.org.za/site/article/1999.