/ 29 April 2011

SA’s poor must shun the polls

Voting is nothing more than an empty ritual used to disguise the deep crisis our democracy is in. Elite commentators and analysts such as Dr Mamphela Ramphele, sensing the oncoming danger, have now elevated voting to a sacred duty.

We are told day in and day out that liberation fighters died so that we could gain the vote, but this is an impoverished conceptualisation of what voting should mean. Surely the likes of Steve Biko didn’t die so that we can, every five years, choose which set of rulers will have an opportunity to live lavishly without any sense of responsibility for those they supposedly serve. Democracy has been hollowed of all content.

The past 17 years of ANC rule can no longer be defended, even by elites who have benefited so handsomely from it. There is a real danger that democracy has left the majority behind and there are signs of disengagement and disenchantment. Increasingly we hear the more organised voices of the poor saying “no land, no vote, no houses, no vote”, and the levels of abstention from the polls tell a further story of a democracy in crisis.

Until now the ANC’s version of democracy has worked for the elite. It makes sense that the benefactors of this dispensation should be a little nervous that the great unwashed are knocking at the doors of privilege. The Democratic Alliance, contrary to popular belief, cannot be seen as a real alternative for the marginalised because it in fact agrees with the ANC on the most fundamental point: that the interests of the elite must be protected through a liberal democratic project.

A paradox has occurred in our body politics — the DA is actually better attuned to delivering the ANC’s policies, which are essentially anti black. The ANC must be credited with reducing the prerequisite of what citizenship means to a voter living in an RDP house on less than R14 a day. Democracy for the majority has meant marginalisation and dehumanisation through government policy and practice. Now the DA is offering to deliver on the very same policies, only more efficiently.

Moral failings
The neglect of the poor and the corruption of ANC officials have been projected as the moral failings of the party’s leadership and not a direct outcome of liberal democracy. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, DA-run councils such as Cape Town and Midvaal have been shown to be run on exactly the same logic as the ANC. The ANC has its struggle history to sell and the DA has been flaunting its statistics on “service delivery” and clean audits. But the DA’s statistics do not count the black spaces within their municipalities.

This, however, is not their creation — the ANC’s incapacity to see the black majority has set the standard, hence Midvaal is such a success if you discount the deplorable squatter camps surrounding it. Furthermore, the DA has shown itself to be a merciless debt collector and this may explain better why they lost Nokeng Tsa Taemane after such a sterling record of delivery, as their leader tells us. The poor simply can’t afford to pay. And when they fall into the rugged cracks of liberal democracy, as the people of Hangberg or Ermelo did, the ANC, like the DA, opens fire.

The problems of liberal democracy are problems of capitalist accumulation. This creates a structural incapacity to serve the majority because capital is not attuned to serving — its raison d’être is accumulation. When the ANC took over in 1994 and paid allegiance to the god of capitalism it meant that old white privileges would be maintained and a politically connected black layer would be allowed to accumulate. Access to the state as either senior public servants, MPs or, better still, Cabinet ministers, coupled with BEE and employment equity, contributed to the building of a tiny, privileged black social stratum. This new political and economic elite helped build new exclusions and entrenched apartheid when it came to access to the things the Constitution said were important for a life of dignity.

This layer has functioning schools, hospitals, housing and transport, among other social goods. Served by the system of exclusion, the politicians abandoned the mandate of serving and transforming the apartheid reality of the majority. Schools stopped teaching, hospitals became places of death and the transport system seemed to have been designed to ferry goods and animals. Voting, therefore, is a way of legitimising this arrangement.

Corruption has been projected as an aberration instead of a constituent element of democracy. Let us ask, honestly, how else would a black business class emerge if not by the tender, political connectivity and a little bit of unlawful accumulation? White wealth was created in the same fashion through 350 years of theft and plunders. As long as democracy is subordinated to the dictates and rhythms of capital, we must not hope for much improvement in the lot of the poor. Sadly, both the ANC and DA believe in the same god.

New alternatives must uncouple capital from democracy to realise the interests of the many. Until democracy is true to the participation of the majority it simply cannot be an instrument of change. From this point of view, the old anarchist adage that “if voting could change anything, it would have been outlawed” makes much sense.

For the poor, the option of not voting seems the most viable option. The key issue is what the poor and those disaffected by the current empty ritual would do to return meaning to democracy.

Andile Mngxitama is the editor of New Frank Talk