No winners in the South African elections

Sharmini Brookes

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Topics Politics

In the run-up to the South African municipal elections, being held today, things have not been looking great for South African president and ANC leader Jacob Zuma.

Twenty ward councillor candidates have been killed so far, such is the desperation with which some seek the rewards that come with public office. And of those 20, 13 were killed in KwaZulu Natal (KZN), a Zulu coastal province, which, according to some commentators, is Zuma’s personal fiefdom. After all, it is the province that helped Zuma gain control of the ANC and win the presidency, the province with which he, a Zulu, identifies, and now the province whose loyalty Zuma maintains through financial incentives and handouts. This largesse, some argue, is responsible for fuelling the increasingly murderous pursuit of public office.

And Zuma is in trouble more broadly. Over 26million people are registered to vote in the elections (three million more than in 2011), and 204 parties are standing (that’s 83 more than were standing in 2011). Unsurprisingly, the ANC’s percentage of the vote looks set to slip, especially in the three main urban constituencies (Gauteng, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay) that it holds outside of Cape Town, which itself looks likely to remain in the hands of the Democratic Alliance (DA).

Many whites, Indians and a sizeable proportion of blacks are hoping for a Brexit-style result – that, against the odds, the ANC will finally be routed. Some even look on enviously at the rise of of Donald Trump in the US. If someone like Trump can become a presidential candidate, they surmise, surely we can get rid of the ANC?

Is this a sign of a healthy democracy? It is and it isn’t. The ANC government has certainly come in for some robust questioning, as well as facing several violent protests, over the past year. And little wonder, given its failure to deliver on assorted public services.

However, the political opposition is desperately uninspiring. There is little difference in actual policies between the DA and the ANC, even when it comes to the hotly debated question of Black Economic Empowerment (a racially selective programme launched by the ANC to redress the inequalities of Apartheid by giving economic privileges to certain previously disadvantaged groups). When a DA spokeswoman was interviewed recently, and was asked to outline one policy that differed from the ANC’s, she was unable to respond.

To the left of the ANC are the Economic Freedom Fighters, but their impact is likely to be limited. Their attachment to the so-called old Communist ideals of nationalisation, land grabs and anti-Western rhetoric lacks any real purchase with the electorate.

So while the opposition parties have gained ground on the ANC, this has little to do with their own policies. Rather, they owe their ascent to the depth of mass disaffection with the ANC. Indeed, there are many who say they will not vote at all because there is nothing to vote for.

Some liberals chastise those who do not want to vote, pointing out that people died to win the vote. Yet people didn’t die for the vote as a technical thing. They died in the struggle for a better society – for decent houses, for well-paid jobs, for good education and better healthcare; that is, for the right to reshape their lives and society. The right to put a cross on a piece of paper means nothing if the ballot offers little to choose between. Because that’s what South Africans need: a real political choice.

Sharmini Brookes is a writer based in Johannesburg.

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Topics Politics