Editorial: Don’t break the system for just one victory

As this edition of the Mail & Guardian was going to print, two questions dominated the world news agenda: Just how much violence will follow Kenya’s contentious elections? And just how close to the brink of nuclear war will the United States’ jester-in-chief push us? 

Ideally, such questions should stand on their own – in their own contexts – rather than inspire the kind of parochial navel-gazing that we are so inclined towards here in South Africa.

Yet it is hard not to contrast these events with our own political week – and then become rather smug about just how good we’ve got it. Yes, South Africa has innumerable problems and flaws, and compares unfavourably with our global counterparts in many ways. The immediate future is bleak and our longer-term prospects are uncertain at best.

Unlike in Kenya and the US, however, our failures are not encoded in our systems – not yet, at least. This week, when South African MPs voted in one of the most contentious polls ever held in this country, the only suggestion of a rigged vote came from the victor. Some MPs had sold their votes, President Jacob Zuma said in a joking-but-not-really sort of way as he was celebrating surviving Tuesday’s no-confidence vote.

Even he, though, did not so much as intimate that the final count had been wrong, or illegitimate, or that tallied numbers in any way failed to reflect how the small pool of voters had voted. Nor was there any such allegation by the opposition parties who so love their manufactured drama, or from those ANC MPs who are now being subjected to a witch-hunt in search of “traitors”, or from the civil society organisations who depend on grabbing headlines to keep the donations coming in.

As much as any or all of these groups may have liked to cry foul, there simply was no room to do so in an even remotely plausible fashion. It is, of course, logistically trivial to run a bulletproof poll when you are dealing with a maximum of 400 voters all locked in one room. But every major party in that chamber on Tuesday (both those who knew they would lose and the one who knew it had to win) have proven their talents in disrupting processes and distorting truth.

All of them this week showed political maturity and common sense in working towards a credible vote rather than seeking disruption – with the single exception of Zuma, of course, but this is irrelevant, given that he has taught us to expect the worst from him.

Unless the Electoral Commission suddenly goes off the rails, and the courts allow it to remain derailed, the same will be true of the 2019 (or earlier) elections. There will be a few discredited and dishonourable types raving on the sidelines, but the result will be credible and accepted. As Kenya is showing us again, that is something to be very grateful for.

That is not to say that our electoral system could not be improved. We remain saddled with the horrible compromise that flowed from the fraught negotiations that ended apartheid, rather than a proper, constituency-based Parliament.

None of our political parties, not one, has showed a true willingness to bring transparency to party funding. Apart from this, the coddling of traditional leaders continues to dilute our democracy. Yet it is impossible to dispute that Jacob Zuma was the popular choice for president when South Africa last voted in general elections.

In the US, by contrast, the majority of people who voted for the hardly faultless but at least comparatively sane Hillary Clinton can simply watch aghast as Donald Trump plays nuclear chicken with North Korea. Zuma is at least as venal as Trump.

Barring nuclear missiles making it as far as the US mainland, Zuma’s administration will, in the final analysis, probably do more harm to South Africa than Trump’s does to the US. But whereas Trump is in office because of a quirky system that makes the supposedly direct vote for president somewhat cosmetic, Zuma is in office because voters wanted the ANC in power – while knowing full well that the ANC, in turn, would elect Zuma as president. And whatever havoc Zuma wreaks, no matter how bad it gets, no matter the rhetoric of the opposition, things are ultimately our own fault.

This is cold comfort, and so easy to forget while state-capture gangsters roam free and women-beaters remain in high office, as jobs bleed away and desperately needed money is squandered. But it is essential that we own up to our collective responsibility for the disaster that is Zuma, lest we imperil that which we must defend at all costs: the positive aspects of the system that put him in power and keep him there.

Treating Zuma as an aberration, as a glitch in the system, allows for a mindset in which the ends – removing him – justify any means: a secret ballot in the National Assembly, for instance, that sets a dangerous precedent of MPs being unaccountable to those who elected them; or using procedural but undemocratic means to force an election.

Our myopic opposition parties are steering us into dangerous waters, and their efforts are too often being cheered on. We need less cheering and more consideration of where their tactics could lead us – with Kenya and the US as cautionary examples.

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