Three weeks ago, the Mail & Guardian promised its readers that we would not endorse any political party for next month’s election. This week, to prove that we are not holier than the politicians we write about and regularly slag off, we are going to break that promise. This is based both on an unusual unaninimity among the newspaper’s political staff as well as the concern that there is one thing worse than being told by a newspaper editor who to vote for, and that is not to vote at all.
But which party can best advance the objectives we – and our readers – hold dear? These desiderata include the relative peace we now enjoy, law and order, prosperity and the eradication of poverty and the preservation of civil liberties.
The African National Congress has made a contribution second to none in creating and safeguarding the political peace in South Africa, particularly given the scale of the historical injustice that preceded democracy. It has demonstrated a moral generosity and maturity as well as the capacity to take almost the entire country along with it in pursuit of peace. We see no reason to doubt the ANC’s commitment to do the same for another five years.
The ANC’s economic management has been astute. On the one hand, it has insisted that the relations and rights that create wealth must be maintained intact within a stable macroeconomic environment; on the other, it has sought to ensure far greater access to benefits, services, legal protection and wealth creation by black people. It has succeeded in steering a steady course through what have been rough seas for emerging markets.
Perhaps inevitably, its efforts have roused frustrations among both the few rich and the many poor, and precipitated a stampede for riches by some of the newly empowered. Our complaint that the government has too easily worn the straitjacket of the conservative global economic consensus, with its priorities of low inflation and fiscal discipline at the expense of development and jobs, is not reflected in any of the campaign pronouncements of the opposition parties.
However, we do share with them the complaint that the ANC has signally failed to control levels of crime. What is worse, under Minister of Safety and Security Sydney Mufamadi, it has failed to demonstrate the political will to do so. The result is that citizens rely increasingly on individual gun ownership or on private security companies and vigilante groups to secure their safety. This is a state of affairs of which the ANC can justifiably feel ashamed.
Over the next five years, the government needs to throw whatever resources are necessary into building an effective police force and an efficient criminal justice system; and, in the longer term, to reverse the social and economic deprivation out of which crime often arises.
The failures of law enforcement amplify the ANC’s failure to fully grasp the nettle of governance. The argument that it will take longer than five years to redress the imbalances of 300 years is undermined by the inexcusable refusal to call weak or incompetent ministers to account. We are not yet convinced that the ANC under Thabo Mbeki has the raw courage to make the bold choices that will be needed in the five years ahead, but there is a discernible new energy emanating from his inner circles, and we have to give the new broom the benefit of the doubt.
We are similarly doubtful about the ANC’s commitment to citizens’ rights in relation to the state – notwithstanding the party’s role in winning these rights for all South Africans.
Perhaps we should rephrase that: we have grounds to be concerned that powerful individuals within the party are disposed not to tolerate dissent, criticism or the existence of centres of power autonomous of themselves; and we fear that genuine democrats in the party and the country at large may find their view — that the basis for our unity as South Africans is an appreciation of our diversity – undermined.
But that is an apprehension, and not a disqualification, because, for all our reservations of an Mbeki presidency, it is difficult to suggest any party that is better qualified than the ANC to protect the liberties won at so great a cost.
Voting against the ANC for the reason that a good government needs a strong opposition to keep it in check is a respectable position. Of the current field, whatever the brave attempts made by Marthinus van Schalkwyk to come to terms with the New National Party’s cruel past, we still find it difficult not to reject as disingenuous its attempts to present itself as a defender of liberty.
Mangosuthu Buthelezi, Bantu Holomisa and Louis Luyt, and their respective parties, are even more unlikely champions of the weak or vulnerable. That leaves the Democratic Party – with part of its ancestry personified by Helen Suzman, who waged a courageous campaign for civil liberties in the darkest days of apartheid. That spirit lives on in the DP, albeit overshadowed by the ”muscular liberalism” of Tony Leon. But the DP has positioned itself for opposition, whereas the question that really needs to be asked is: who will provide the best government for the country?
There is only one party that can rule South Africa and that is why the M&G casts its vote with the ANC.