Let's Think

Is South African democracy as healthy as we think?

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That all major political parties are launching their municipal election campaigns at national rallies on national issues tells a story about the health of democracy on the ground – there where it really matters.

The position of the president of South Africa and leader of the African National Congress, Jacob Zuma, and the national issues currently surrounding him, have become all-dominating.

In fact, the local government elections scheduled for the uncertain date of 3 August, is fast taking on the air of a referendum on national issues. Local issues in the context of the upcoming election do not even feature in the community newspapers that I have seen.

Would it have been any different if it had not been for the ‘Nkandla judgement’ of the Constitutional Court and the explosion of the Gupta state capture affair in the public domain?

I am of the opinion that the answer is ‘no’. Neither do I think that just President Zuma or the ANC is to blame for the fact that local government politics have generally dropped from sight, almost to the point of being non-existent. In the party-political sphere, the ANC has virtually no other option but to run its campaign on a national basis to deal with the threat that the Zuma issue has become to its very existence.

As for the opposition parties, virtually without fail they have opted to go almost exclusively for the low-hanging political fruit of the Zuma affair – a let’s get rid of Zuma campaign.

Formally/legally the results in the local government election will have no bearing on the position of Mr Zuma. Political parties are reducing that election to little more than the first phase of their next national general election campaigns, at this stage scheduled for 2019.

This tendency to turn politics into an almost exclusively national affair is nothing new. And it is causing concerns at local level to be badly neglected, leaving ordinary citizens feeling totally disempowered and frustrated.

Local experience

I have been living in a West Coast town, just inside the border of the Cape Town Metropole, in a security complex situated in the middle of a nature reserve.

The complex, dating from the days of ANC governance in the city, should never have been built in the first instance. It flies in the face of tried, tested and legislated planning principles.

If really big rains come this year, the complex is in real danger of becoming a disaster area.

By the time I moved in, the DA had taken over control of the local council. However, whom I should talk to about contingency planning, should the big rains come, I do not know.

After three years in town no one I know knows who the local councillor is – they know the person is a member of the DA and think it is a woman.

In the last three years there has been no public meeting, newsletter, pamphlet or any other form of communication from our councillor.

In the meantime, besides the looming disaster at our complex, the traffic flow arrangements at the local high school remain a mess; and the MiCity bus route on the un-upgraded road past the primary school remains a dangerous and destructive enterprise.

I suppose I will learn the name of my councillor when the posters for the coming election start going up.

When I think local, my inclination is to cast a protest vote by not casting it at all, or by spoiling the ballot paper.

But then, when I think national, I might be missing out on making my vote count in what is turning out to be a national referendum for change.

While I am considering a stay-away or spoiled vote as an option, that is clearly not good enough for a very large portion of the voters across the country, with much bigger problems than ours here in our quiet (except during holiday times) West Coast town, and their patience is clearly running much thinner than ours.

Riotous behaviour at at least 91 locations during recent voter registration weekends, the destruction of Metrorail property in Cape Town, the killing of a councillor in Umlazi, the proliferation of violent service delivery protests across the country and even the low turnout at the ANC’s launch of its election manifesto, tell of democracy disappointing communities at ground level.

Democracy in danger

While our political parties are playing the cards of ‘big politics’ and in the process are neglecting the lived reality of people at ground level, democracy at local government level is falling apart. Evidence of this is to be found, among other things, in the growing number of councillors falling victim of and dying in violent attacks.

This is a very dangerous space for the country to be in. Politicians of all parties need to be reminded that democracy is in the first instance a bottom-up and not a top-down process.

by Piet Coetzer

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