Final Word

As politicians enfranchise themselves voters become disenfranchised

Franchises 2.jpg

The violent confrontational protests in Tshwane over the ANC’s mayoral candidate are the ‘language’ of disenfranchised members of the party.

This is one of the main reasons put forward by analysts for the flare-up in violent protests, and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) indeed claims “that confrontational protests are becoming an ‘endemic feature’ of SA’s political landscape and the ‘language’ of the disenfranchised”.

Some analysists also argue that the root of the problem lies in the competition between two politicians for control over the top position in the city, which has effectively become a ‘franchise’, and can be, and is, operated for personal material gain.

 It would seem as though we have a situation here where two ‘franchises’ are in competition with each other. To understand what has been happening, one should probably start by looking at what the term ‘franchise’ means and where it comes from.

It all started with power and position

From the very beginning the word ‘franchise’ had everything to do with power and, specifically, political power.

In modern parlance the definition of ‘franchise’ mostly reads something like: “… an authorization granted by a government or company to an individual or group enabling them to carry out specified commercial activities, e.g., providing a broadcasting service or acting as an agent for a company's products”.

The word arrived in Middle English from Old French (1250 - 1300), based on franc and franche, meaning ‘free’. The original use in English was, according to, to indicate “a special right or privilege (by grant of a sovereign or government)”; also “national sovereignty; nobility of character, generosity; the king’s authority; the collective rights claimed by a people or town or religious institution”, also used of the “state of Adam and Eve before the Fall…”

From the late 14c. it was used to indicate “freedom; not being in servitude; (the) social status of a freeman”; early 15c. as “citizenship, membership in a community or town; membership in a craft or guild”.

The “special right” sense then narrowed in the 18c. to “particular legal privilege”, then the “right to vote” (1790).

The more general modern meaning of “authorization by a company to sell its products or services” dates from 1959.


Against this background, one should then not be surprised that, especially in the political context, the term “disenfranchisement” carries with it deep-felt emotions and grounds for volatile protests. It, after all, implies the loss of freedom, to, for example, servitude, and of the right to vote.

How far the effective link between ‘franchising’ and political power goes back, is evident from the fact that in the Middle Ages the local titled land owner would grant rights, probably for a consideration, to the peasants or serfs, to hunt, hold markets or fairs, or otherwise conduct business on his domain.

The extent to which the ANC as political party has succeeded in capturing the state at all levels of government, would make it seem as though mayors and often municipal councillors have become the local titled land owners of present-day South Africa.

Final word

The local titled land owners of today will do well to take note of the role their historical predecessors’ position played in the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, and for a decade after that.

by Piet Coetzer

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