Along with many of you, today I made a difficult decision regarding which party to vote for in South Africa’s National elections – more difficult than any of the previous 10 (if you include the Municipal elections) were.
In one respect, I take that as a positive thing, because competition is good, and more than one option on the ballot today had merits to consider. It’s sometimes a sign of a more mature democracy that the choice of whom to vote for isn’t utterly obvious.
For those of us who don’t reflexively vote for the same political party in every election, regardless of contextual details like their performance, their choice of candidates, and of course their policy platforms, the 2019 National Elections (May 8) might well be the most confounding choice we’ve ever faced.
None of the candidates are not sub-optimal in some form or another. The ANC’s candidate list includes people who have been directly implicated in “state capture” and corruption. While it’s true that they are eligible to be members of Parliament – as Ace Magashule says, “Anybody who has not been found guilty by a court of law is on the list” – you’d hope that the bar would be set higher than “not a proven criminal”.
John Maytham was listening in, and that resulted in an interview with me, just concluded a few minutes ago. For those who didn’t hear it (here’s a link to the podcast), and who care about what I have to say on this topic, here is a digest of my thoughts on the matter:
My first experience of voting was on March 17, 1992, in the referendum that asked
Do you support continuation of the reform process which the State President began on 2 February 1990 and which is aimed at a new Constitution through negotiation?
That reform process, and the desire to be part of it, was one of the reasons that I returned from the USA, where I had been living during 1990 and 1991. I watched Mandela’s release in February 1990 from a small apartment in Rockville, Maryland, and even though sad I couldn’t be there, I was nevertheless optimistic about South Africa’s future, and the prospect of a fully democratic election.
One way of thinking about the upcoming local government elections is as a session of couples’ therapy. While some disaffected voters are frequenting their local singles bar, either genuinely unattached or maybe ‘just looking’, and others are actively fleeing a situation they quickly realised they simply couldn’t cope with, many voters are still trying to make their current relationship work.
The ANC might hope that the (roughly) 66% of votes it attracted in the municipal elections of 2006 came from South Africans who remain committed to that particular relationship. But from the outside, where I find myself, it is sometimes difficult to understand why that might be the case, as the relationship seems increasingly one-sided, and sometimes even abusive.
This is not to say that it can’t be fixed, if both parties put the effort in. And perhaps the relationship is simply undergoing a short-term wobble – a 17-year itch of sorts. But when one party in a relationship – the voter – is treated with the sort of contempt occasionally displayed by people representing the ANC, it seems entirely appropriate to question whether both remain equally committed to making the relationship work.
In February, President Zuma told us that when “you vote for the ANC, you are also choosing to go to heaven. When you don’t vote for the ANC you should know that you are choosing that man who carries a fork … who cooks people”. As Sipho Hlongwane correctly pointed out, statements like these seem little more than diversionary tactics, intended to distract attention from dysfunctional local municipalities, corruption and the like. As per those oft-misunderstood and abused lines from Marx, religion is here meant to serve as the resigned ‘sigh of the oppressed creature’, and an opiate for the masses.
Beyond the cynicism of exploiting the religious beliefs of your citizens to retain votes, Zuma’s statement was also a lie. Not only a lie from within the belief system he was appealing to (for where in the Christian Bible does one find God’s endorsement of the ANC?), but also a lie from outside of those beliefs, in that it is telling voters that factors besides government performance should determine which boxes you cross on May 18.
Jackson Mthembu responded to the criticism resulting from Zuma’s statement by telling us that it was neither blasphemous, nor to be taken seriously. “South Africans – both black and white – fully understand the use of figurative expressions”, Mthembu said, after which he pointed out that those perturbed by this statement “are probably driven by jealousy for not having thought of the expression themselves”.
These are probably also lies. With approximately 73% of South Africans self-identifying as Christians, and in a country where many outside of the middle and upper classes still take sangomas seriously, the claim that we all fully understand the distinction between literal and figurative speech is difficult to read as anything but an attempt at damage-limitation, where an apology and a retraction would have been more appropriate.
It’s also worth pointing out that the majority of eligible voters in the upcoming elections still came through a system where educational resources were unequally deployed, and – regardless of how well or how poorly you think we’re being educated today – would probably not have been taught that references to eternal damnation by Presidents should not be taken seriously.
Mthembu’s jealousy statement is also likely to either be dishonest (or simply naïve), in that we can well imagine other political parties as being capable of imagining ways to threaten voters into supporting them. The difference, of course, is that they would usually choose to spend their time more productively, or failing that, to not deploy those threats at all. The ACDP is of course the exception here, given that they seem to think that God wants to micro-manage all aspects of our lives.
Tony Ehrenreich, the likely mayoral candidate for the ANC in Cape Town, also exploited voters with a similar lie on March 6, when he told a community meeting that they needed to choose whether they wanted to be “on the side of justice” (by voting ANC), or “on the side of the devil”, which is what a vote for the DA (specifically Helen Zille) would apparently amount to. Zille must therefore be a satanic monkey, if you put Ehrenreich’s statement alongside one of Malema’s recent outbursts, in which he asserted that Zille would not be out of place in a simian dancing troupe.
But just in case not all voters are Christians, and therefore aren’t fearful of Satan or his monkey-minions, Malema recently upped the ante by telling us that not only would a vote for anyone other than the ANC send you to hell, it would also contribute to the death of a flesh-and-blood icon, Nelson Mandela. You would, in effect, be committing murder – perhaps even something like patricide – by voting for the for an opposition party.
Last week, Malema told the crowd at a Port Elizabeth rally that “President Mandela is sick and you don’t want to contribute to a worsening condition of Mandela by not voting ANC. President Mandela will never endure if the ANC is out of power”. Just as with Zuma and Ehrenreich’s statements (and, probably, similar ones made at smaller and unreported gatherings), no apologies or retractions are forthcoming, even though these statements amount to treating voters with utter contempt.
Contempt, because they don’t treat voters as capable of making choices based on genuine political issues, such as service delivery or which up-and-coming dictators we plan to supply weapons to next. Instead, voters are simply treated as a means to the end of retaining power – which is why this relationship is dysfunctional.
If you find yourself in a relationship where persuasion occurs through emotional blackmail rather than appeal to evidence or mutual interest, then the chances are good that the relationship is an abusive one. Emotional blackmail uses fear or guilt to create the impression that you have no choice but to go along with the abusers’ wishes – yet elections are meant to be all about choice, not about threats and intimidation.
At a certain point in such a relationship, friends and family would no doubt counsel you to cut your losses, and end things before more harm is done. We’re often reluctant to do so – not only because of genuine commitment or affection, but also because of cognitive biases involving escalation of commitment (in extremis, as typified in Stockholm syndrome). So instead, we might try to make it work, and give the abuser one more chance.
And this is of course our choice, and our right. We should however remember to try and not be distracted by threats and accusations. Perhaps, we should also remember how it works in other relationships, where claims of contrition and a desire to change require evidence – or at least an acknowledgement of wrongdoing.
Democracy and liberty are not equivalent, despite the fact that they are so often conflated in popular discourse. There is no logical obstacle to a dictator being democratically elected and then leaving us with little freedom. Likewise, a dictator could in theory be benevolent, and allow for more freedoms than we currently enjoy in South Africa.
This is why being silent in the face of oppression, tyranny, or abuse of power by the state should not be considered an option by those of us committed to both democracy as well as freedoms of various sorts. Fortunately, democracy and liberty are often positively correlated, so that an increase in the one tends to coincide with an increase in the other.
But because this connection is not a logically necessary one, we are sometimes required to fight these battles on independent fronts. Among the dilemmas and difficulties presented by these battles, we can identify the tone of our arguments as a significant complication, because sometimes struggles for liberty involve butting heads with majority sentiment – in other words with impulses arising from democratic discourses and ideals.
The DA’s “Stop Zuma” campaign has me (a historical DA supporter) concerned – so much so that I was compelled to agree with 6K, which is rare on matters political.
The DA probably has the best pollsters and analysts of all the SA parties, but they got this one wrong. I’m convinced that it will be a vote-loser. As “Dismayed” comments at 6000 miles… (linked above), it will only appeal to a small set of current DA voters, and perhaps turn a few current DA voters off too.
Helen Zille has done a great job of undermining the negative perceptions of the DA under Leon, particularly the perception that they were all about being “anti”, rather than building their own profile as a party fit to govern. The campaign (until “stop JZ”) was great, as it did exactly that – far less carping about what others were doing wrong, and far more trumping of the DA’s virtues as a party ready to lead.
“Stop JZ” is uncomfortably reminiscent of the “Fight back” campaign, easily caricatured as “Fight Black”. The undecideds who were thinking that maybe the DA is no longer a “white” party, and that perhaps it’s time to give them a chance, have now been given a firm shove away from voting DA.
To be clear: I do think Zuma should be” stopped”. Not necessarily stopped from being President, but stopped from riding roughshod over the rule of law, and stopped from undermining some of the values people have fought so hard for in SA’s short democratic history. But our best chance of stopping him – and cynical populist rabble-rousers like Malema – is to create a genuine democracy in this country, where it’s feasible that someone other than the ANC can win an election. The only power the voter has is that parties and leaders feel that they can be (and are being) held to account for their actions, and for as long as the ANC is guaranteed election wins, that’s not going to happen here.
To make that happen, we need to strengthen the opposition, and the opposition is not strengthened by confirming the prejudiced view of the majority of the population: that the DA is a shrill, reactionary – and white – party. I do not believe that the DA fits this prejudice, but can certainly understand why some people believe it. The average voter makes their cross based on these perceptions and prejudices, not necessarily on a careful weighing of options. We simply don’t have the maturity to be that kind of democracy, and nor do most of our population have the educations that those sorts of choices presume.
It comes as a great surprise to me, but I can’t say with any confidence that I’ll be voting DA tomorrow.