Political Watch

Fracturing of South African politics set to continue

Low voter turnouts a global trend

In line with international trends the present fracturing of South African politics is set to continue with the ANC the biggest, but not the only, loser.

Globally the construct of democracy built on the foundations of political party-dominated regular elections seems to be in trouble.

In an article last week on The Conversation website Professor John Keane of the University of Sydney wrote: “All’s not well in the house of elections; public fractiousness and political dissent are brewing.

“There are signs of rising citizen disaffection with mainstream ‘catch-all’ parties accused of failing to be all good things to all voters. Support for populist parties is rising. Experiments with ‘anti-political’, direct-action social networks are flourishing. In some quarters, voting is judged a worthless waste of time, money and energy.”

Evidence of this process in South Africa can be seen in:

  • The recent mass protest marches against corruption organised by an odd collection of non-party political organisations;
  • The rise of populist parties and organisations like the Economic Freedom Fighters and the Abahlali baseMjondolo, the South African shack dwellers’ movement and the United Front as a collection of left-leaning organisations, Rhodes Must Fall and many more;
  • Special interest groups like the Solidarity Movement taking things in their own hands via initiatives to promote the interest of their members by establishing their own institutions to create some semblance of autonomy;
  • Members of mainline political parties joining small fringe parties like Front Nationaal;
  • The 36% drop in the membership of the ANC over a period of three years; and
  • The rising tide of service delivery protests throughout the country.

ANC biggest loser

As the biggest and also the ruling political party, the ANC has the most to lose in this trend of what Keane describes as the “Philippines syndrome: a strangely contradictory trend marked by elections that come wrapped in intense media coverage and great public excitement mixed with bitter disappointment about the sidelining of elected governments by big banks, big money and the outsourcing of state functions to cross-border power chains.”

The ANC is further plagued by what we last week dubbed “post-liberation stress syndrome” – as it is failing to make the transition from being a ‘liberation movement’, well into the third decade after the country’s first democratic elections. The needs, concerns and priorities of the vast majority of voters have shifted and the party has failed to shift alongside.

To what extent the party is still caught up in the liberation movement mentality is vividly illustrated in the motivation for more media regulation by Minister Lindiwe Zulu at the recent National General Council of the ANC. She said that the ANC as “liberation movement (our emphasis) and as a ruling party” is not respected by the media.

And to what extent politics in South Africa, as in many parts of the world, has become issue-driven is also illustrated, drawing narrow-based special interest groups onto the political stage, by the attack last week on the ANC by the Opposition to Urban Tolling Alliance (Outa). Sounding rather like a spokesperson of a political party, Outa’s chairperson Wayne Duvenage said in a statement: “… it is too easy for the ANC to ‘finger out’ the South African National Roads Agency Limited (Sanral) CEO Nazir Alli as its scapegoat over Gauteng’s e-tolls debacle.”

Are there ‘winners?’

It would, however, be wrong to assume that these challenges of the ANC will necessarily lead to substantial gains for other mainline political parties. In South Africa there are also, as indicated above, manifestations of the global trend which Keane calls “citizen disaffection with mainstream ‘catch-all’ parties”.

The biggest challenge facing all mainline parties, including the official opposition Democratic Alliance, during next year’s municipal election, will be to get voters to actually go to the polling stations. Voter turnout next year will be the important figure to watch for an indication as to what extent the ‘disaffection trend’ has also taken hold in South Africa.

It is our guess that we will see a low turnout and coalitions taking control in quite a number of municipalities, especially in larger urban areas, with smaller special-interest parties wielding power well above the weight of their actual supporter numbers.

As far back as the run-up to last year’s general elections, we identified signs showing that South Africa is heading the way of coalition politics.

How things pan out in next year’s municipal elections might, however, just bring South Africa closer to facing the ultimate question posed by Keane in his article: “Is the universal belief in the universality of ‘free and fair’ elections a mid-20th-century delusion, a worn-out dogma now urgently in need of replacement by fresh visions and new democratic innovations fit for our times?”


by Piet Coetzer

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