The 2016 Local Government Elections: South Africa, a Maturing Democracy

Published on 3rd October 2017

The 2016 local government elections have come and gone. The results have been released by what is arguably the most efficient elections management agency in the developing world, the IEC. Political analysts and statisticians are now grappling with the implications of the numbers and how these are reflective of the continuing South African story. In this forest of opinions, consensus on the fact that the country’s democracy is maturing has emerged. Critical in understanding this consensus will be what areas are being consolidated for the current growth path.

The South African Constitution, a growing arbiter for all matters political, provides that the country is one, sovereign, and democratic state founded on inter alia the values of universal adult suffrage, a national common voter’s roll and a multi-party system of democratic governance. These values are constitutionally entrenched in order to ensure accountability, responsiveness and openness. Implicit in these values is a truism that South Africans have the unconditional right to full citizenship, accessed through possession of a valid identity document that does not only guarantee participation in economic activities and related property ownership rights, but also registration on the common voter’s roll.  The Constitution further entrenches the right to make political choices that include choice of a political home and/or political persuasion.

In its preamble the constitution declares that ‘South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united by our diversity’. This declaration undergirds the 1955 vision by the Congress of the People as encapsulated in the Freedom Charter, an ancestral policy document instructing to the ideational basis of being South African post 1994. The 1955 generation, amongst whom South Africa’s great luminaries such as Nelson Mandela, created a vision that would, and via a Constituent Assembly process which was a sequel to the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA), be bequeathed to South Africans of all political persuasions and ideological shades. It is for the same reason that the constitution instructs all South Africans, as they were acting through their representatives at the time of its adoption, to heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental rights. A foundation for democracy was thus established.

In the South African scheme of things it was very heartening to observe, during these elections, the inner circle of the national official opposition party, the DA, which is still perceived to be inherently a continuation of the erstwhile whites only United-Party-Progressive-Federal-Party-Democratic-Party political complex, albeit on a definite change path embodied in the post 1994 relaunched DA, embracing in an annexing sub-context the monuments and icons of the struggle against Apartheid colonialism as their own.

The claim to the Mandela legacy as a continuation of the 2011 launch of the DA’s manifesto at Kliptown, the ANC’s ancestral policy mecca became yet another positive in this maturity path. The embrace of Mandelaism, like the 2011 launch, represented a tacit adoption of the Freedom Charter dictums as the context of all political contexts in South Africa. This embrace makes The Freedom Charter a representative embodiment of freedom demands to be inscribed as the template upon which political parties may have to be judged in future. The extent to which a party can convince South Africans on achieving the demands set at Kliptown in 1955 will in the near future be its main appeal to the electorate.

Translation of the Freedom Charter demands over time will nuance political formation’s election manifestos. The opening demand ‘the people shall govern’ remains the most contested as it guarantees the state means through which the attainment of subsequent demands of the charter could be done. The pre-occupation with political power and a slow movement in redefining the economic power landscape created a lag in the realisation of economic dividends associated with political mandates given to the ruling ANC. Unlike in other liberation movement governed African states, the South African democratic experiment was preceded by a Mandela-De Klerk led political accord that adopted constitutional principles which an independent judiciary will use as a reference point to adjudicate the constitutionality of policy trajectories as codified in legislation. The 2016 local elections seems to have sharpened the spirit and letter of the political accord as well as the opening demand of the Freedom Charter; ‘the people shall govern’.

Whilst some of those that voted the DA celebrated the declaration of Robert McBride as ‘murderer’ by a ‘case law’ dependent independent judiciary, it was consoling to see the DA celebrating another ‘murderer’ in Mamelodi in the name of Solomon Mahlangu. The extent to which the strategy was a collective emotion of the historical voting base of the DA is what South Africa still needs to decode as we progress. The in-country potential of the visit to these monuments as well as the salient educative impact by the history of these heroes is what the tourism ministry should exploit. In this reawakening, South Africa should be opportunistic in weaving into this embrace of struggle heroes, a strategy to resuscitate the anti-British imperialism heroics of the Afrikaner anti-colonial struggle that incidentally created for South Africa a complete detachment of the colony from the pre-1960 coloniser. It is our collective responsibility to recognise and celebrate the fact that South Africa was ‘decolonised’ from imperialist and extractive British colonialism by a narrowly defined nationalist movement that ultimately realised the limitations of a race-based nationalist path.

The embrace of struggle icons still needs to be followed-up by visible presence of the ‘new members’ of the anti-Apartheid or ‘pro-Mandela-type-freedom’ nation. The previous celebration of national holidays has clearly divided South Africa in terms of those that see these holidays representing their defeat and those that display triumph against Apartheid and by default ‘whiteness’; and invariably creating an never-will-embrace-Apartheid nation drawn mostly from Apartheid victims, natural democrats and repenting neo-racists. The shepherding of the DA’s historic constituency to recognise other non-Mandela heroes that are McBride-like is one of the greatest dividends of our maturation process should be yielding; a spirit that should find its path into the emotional fundamental of ‘some’ in the country’s judiciary, given their serial liberation struggle context denouncing judgements to date.

The importance of decentralisation that is anchored by a capacity to generate own revenue is now cast in stone as the best aspect of South African democratic life. The competition for the 6 Metropolitan municipalities as key jurisdictions with which political parties can demonstrate their ready to govern capability has entrenched the multi-jurisdictional nature of political mandate sourcing. The elevation of individuals, through the ‘involvement’ of the community, in municipal ward contests may have reintroduced the need to have Parliament being directly elected on the basis of constituencies; this seed has found resonance within the ANC, this is despite the failed Tshwane last minute candidate parachuting experiment. The integration of society into non-race based communities seems to be the only obstacle for such a system to be embraced by predominantly black political formations, if the voting demographics are used as evidence.

The reality of the political ignorant or naive ‘born frees’ becoming a new voting factor as a result of the opportunity dividends of the 1994 democratic breakthrough is a positive that will redefine the ‘broad church’ fallacy within a profoundly pro-left ruling ANC. The shift from race-identity politics to ideological voting as well as service delivery excellence voting will force the introduction of efficiencies in the public service and public sector. The policy making machinery requisite to stem the tide of voter takeover by a growing opposition within a shrinking voter population creates a bonded investment to be cashed in at a historical epoch by either of the emerging ideological poles. This presents new theoretical insights on the political science domain for South Africa; a feast for social and political scientists.

Given the above, it should henceforth be unacceptable for South Africans to accept the narrative which suggests that liberation struggle context is the context of all non-white politics. Similarly it must be unacceptable to lump all-for-ANC supporters to be pro-left thus discounting the preponderance of right-wing economic lieutenants, neo-liberals, liberals and libertarians in the ANC. In fact, the ANC’s formation in 1912 was a liberal construct with a profoundly American Congress influence and a predominating Garveyist and Wilberforcean liberalism. The founding constitution of the ANC drew an ideological fault line which defines most in-ANC factional tensions, conflicts and splits to date. In fact the simmering and somewhat in the open tensions between the left-in-the-ANC supported by the left-organised-in-the-SACP and the right-in-the-ANC supported by the right-within-the-opposition-center-right is a manifestation of some ideological rapture occurring in the ANC.

The right to vote and make political choices opened the historically non-voting black constituency as a new ideational market for political formations. Parties that have a standing ideology and a heritage of sustaining a discourse changing or dominating machinery within the procedural dictates of a regularised electoral system. To these parties, formal power contestation is a maintenance matter and the potential of being ‘arrogant’ is progressively diminished by a concomitant rise of arrogance by the ‘new-in-power’ entrants. The grammar of power is in these conditions always in conflict with the new concepts introduced by the new-in-power thus making procedural practice look like a capitulation to past power and invariably lending post-liberation leadership in perpetual conflict with institutions designed to protect democracy. The historical adversarial relationship with political power in South Africa has mutated into a breed of solidarity that defends corruption, state-capture and other ills often associated with power aggrandizement.

The outcome of the 2016 Local Government Elections which stripped the ANC of the ultimate prize of politics, government, has in fact placed into the hands of parties opposed to continued ANC rule resources in excess of R100bn in direct terms, and potentially far much more in influence multiplier terms. These resources, represent to the opposition a capacity to translate their political manifesto into tangible and sub-national government endorsed delivery programmes that will demonstrate to the electorate the state of readiness by the opposition to ascend to national government management. The dictum emerging from within the stalwart cohort of the ANC that ‘we fought against Apartheid to afford ourselves and future generations a right to self-determine the socio-political and ‘somewhat’ economic future of South Africa has, and through the 2016 local government elections outcome, brought the future forward at a speed commensurate to what obtains in the technological advance environment. In respect of what the future holds in electoral terms, the 2016 outcome can never be viewed as an absolute indicator; it should rather be subjected to a Zulu proverb “never cast your spear before making sure of your foothold.”

By Dr FM Lucky Mathebula

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