Coalition spectacle fails to hide a dismal truth

Despite much ado being made about the ‘shocking’ outcome of negotiations for positions in municipalities, nothing has changed for the majority without a voice.

Politicians in South Africa do not care that they have spent the past week or so showing that, for them, 70% of the people do not matter. But we should. 

In my book Prisoners of the Past, published in June, I argue that all “official” politics in South Africa is insider politics. This means, among other things, that political parties are vehicles for the one-third of the country fortunate enough to enjoy access to a wage, salary or other income from the formal economy. 

Some parties find it necessary to claim that they speak for the poor, or even the “poorest of the poor”. But none do. Whether they claim to want radical change or a better-run version of what we have now, they do not experience what two-thirds of the people endure, nor do they understand that experience or believe that the majority has anything to contribute besides a vote. After the events that followed 1 November’s local elections, it is not even clear they care much what most of the insiders for whom they do speak think or want.

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The November pantomime happened, ironically, because of something many of the people who are never heard did: they withheld their votes from a governing party that continued to take them for granted despite promises to begin listening. The evidence suggests that most who stayed away were not demanding the radical economic change politicians pretend to promise when they fight their factional battles. They were simply tired of governing party politicians obsessed with themselves and each other but indifferent to the people on whose votes they rely.

But, as we are seeing graphically now, not voting ANC – the only weapon most people have – has limited value precisely because all politics is insider politics. No party speaks for the 70% and so, in place of a self-seeking governing party, they – and we – contend with a motley mix of suburbanites who claim racism is something Blacks dream up to taunt whites, xenophobes, union-bashers, ethnic entrepreneurs, media junkies and plain chancers. What they hold in common is a contempt for, or indifference to, at least 70% of the people. They are what they are because they can afford to ignore the vast majority. 

If parties cared about the people for whom they claim to speak, they would have negotiated coalition agreements that told the public what they had agreed and what they planned to do. They would have done this in the open, so people could react if they did not like what was agreed. And they would have stuck to what they said in public or agreed in writing.

Shrouded in secrecy

None of this happened. Enabled by a secret ballot that allowed public representatives to hide from voters, they made and broke deals in secret, contradicting what they said in public or tearing up agreements they solemnly announced. The country still does not know why some voted for candidates of parties they claim to despise; some say it was spite, others a perverse attempt to ensure the failure of the party whose candidates were elected. We are now saddled with mayors and speakers who are not backed by workable coalitions and are already engaged in slanging matches with the parties who voted for them. The only rationale offered for all this is that it aids “service delivery”, which is what the political class dumps on the majority without asking.   

The country can now look forward to years of political drama as politicians grandstand and mayors come and go. There will be much intrigue and many media interviews. What there will not be is a sense that parties feel any obligation to those who elected them, let alone those whose stayaway gave them the opportunity to hog the limelight.

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None of this should be surprising given how narrow the support base is of the politicians who have been basking in the glow of media attention. If we take voter registration numbers into account, less than one-third of eligible voters cast a ballot. So, if we want to know how much public support the parties really have, we should divide their share of the vote by three. This means that most metropolitan governments – whether they have ANC or DA mayors – are now run by parties backed by between 8% and 12% of eligible voters. The parties that engineered the surprise election of DA mayors in several municipalities represent about 4% of people eligible to vote.

This is not a sign of “voter apathy” – it was a stayaway by people trying to send a message. Nor does it mean the elections were not legitimate – even a turnout of one-third for local elections is the norm around the globe. But it does highlight the huge gulf between the pretensions of politicians and their very weak roots among the people.

Still us and them

For the one-third, the prospect of self-serving politicians turning local government into a power game playground should not be too disturbing. As suburban residents of Nelson Mandela Bay or Johannesburg know, municipal services tick over in much the same way regardless of whether the ANC, DA or no one is in charge. For the two-thirds, it is a setback because no one is going to change much or fix long-standing problems if they are busy holding together or unseating wobbly deals between parties. Nor will any of this reduce corruption – mayors will not go after looters if that means breaking up their fragile coalitions.

So, ironically, more political chaos means that things will remain much as they are. Not only will services still be provided in the same way to the same suburban people, but the evictions of homeless people from makeshift dwellings and the cuts in services to people in poverty will also continue. The discomfort of the majority will continue to guarantee the comfort of the minority.

So, the continued divide between the 30% who matter and the 70% who do not ensures that the many among the 70% who withheld their votes will simply exchange one group of politicians who do not care about them for another. As long as all politics remains insider politics, the loudest political statement the 70% have made in 27 years will simply confirm that they are always denied a hearing.

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This gloomy picture also offers hope and opportunity. The election stayaway may not have shifted the needle. But it is a clear signal that many feel they are not heard, which makes the country fertile ground for movements that could amplify their voices. Strong movements among the 70% could prompt the birth of a party able to offer disenchanted voters a vehicle.

For activists now, municipalities with no stable majority may be a playing field for egos and intrigue, but they also create openings for change. The politicians may not care about the 70% but they do need votes, so activism could prompt parties to agree to change because they want to stay in office or replace those who are there now. 

There are few signs of a growth of popular movements or a willingness by activists to use the opportunities the election has offered. Until that changes, most South Africans will be forced to look on as the minority fights among itself for spoils.                                  

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