An estimated 26.7-million registered voters from an eligible 35.9-million were expected to turn up at polling stations throughout the country in its sixth general elections since 1994.
But voter turnout was about 9% less than in the previous election in 2014, dropping from 73.48% to 64.3%. Although some analysts provide mundane reasons for the low voter turnout, from poor weather to logistical challenges, there is the more significant factor of civil society’s discontentment with the trajectory of South Africa’s democracy that is being overlooked.
As always, the elections are brandished as an opportunity and mechanism to effect positive change. For now, the consensus among opposition parties, in spite of their vast ideological divergences on substantive issues of economic policy, social principles and political ideology, especially their position on land, is to punish the governing party for its crass and latent attitude in the face of state capture.
Without denying the marginal developmental gains made by the ANC since 1994, such blatant looting of state resources, incompetency in governance, nefarious abuse of executive power, exploiting of loopholes and limitations endemic to the political system (for example, incomplete separation of powers) to punish dissenting voices from within party ranks (let alone from outside), points to deep-seated moral rot.
Unfortunately, these dominant opposition parties that are aiming to convince the masses to “vote for change”, upon closer scrutiny, are themselves blighted by such allegations.
Even a liberal party such as the Democratic Alliance as well as conservative parties like the Freedom Front Plus (FF+), Black First Land First and arguably the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which claim to be fighting and advocating for a more moral and just governance — positioning themselves as champions of democracy — are blind to how their own parochialisms — appealing to narrow constituency interests, shifting of blame rather than confronting, acknowledging and addressing their own shortcomings — make them complicit in the failure of democratic consolidation in South Africa.
As every voter, hopefully, goes through the rational process of aligning and reconciling their own interests, traditions, ideological disposition, social values and norms with political parties and their list of candidates, they will inevitably, after weighing and managing the contradictions of their own choice, arrive at the following juncture: Which is a “lesser evil”?
This conundrum, experienced by South Africans today, of choosing political order over morality, is one people have had to confront since the Western state was conceptualised.
In fact, it is the Hobbesian pessimism of human nature that justified the existence of the state in the first place. Established procedural gains — from protection and implementation of constitutional conventions to the holding of free and fair elections — have lulled the public into a false sense of democratic success.
The gradual decline of the ANC, an increase in the number of people who are eligible to vote but are not registered, and an increase in the number of spoilt ballots are symptomatic of a civil society disgruntled by endemic corruption and insubstantial changes in their material conditions. This pertains especially to the vulnerable, who have opted for protest rather than a vote.
The shift from informal to formal platforms for democratic expression points to a depreciation of civic trust in political institutions, organisations and their representatives, who are in constant breach of the social contract.
A dearth in moral virtue of accountability, a sense of social responsibility, justness and honour is a scourge that has not only racked democracy in South Africa, but globally. The rise to power of conservative politics — Donald Trump in the United States as a case in point — alludes to a disillusionment with the liberal consensus that has hidden behind a discourse of democracy advocating equality, freedom and human rights, while ostentatiously justifying and implementing legislation that exacerbates inequality, political and economic unfreedom, and gross violation of human rights.
Similar to other democracies, the relative gains of conservative radical parties and political leaders in South Africa emerged in retaliation to the failure of liberal democracy to create an authentic sense of inclusiveness predicated on recognition of the congruence of moral speak and action.
Unfortunately, though, as George Orwell warned, “in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act”. The fact that radical conservative opposition parties such as the EFF and FF+ aim to reveal the deceitfulness of the ANC and the bad faith of other liberal parties that conveniently skirt around claims of racism and the plight of the poor, does not exclude them from such exceptionalism.
Political parties have simply mirrored the popular sentiment of their respective constituencies, exploiting the emotions and feelings of the electorate without reflecting on the consequences of the political rhetoric they espouse, the contradictions and moral transgressions of their own actions and the limitations of their visions.
Although the problem of South Africa’s democracy appears to rest with political parties and the system of governance, South Africans need to re-evaluate the role they play in perpetuating this condition.
The very idea of the vote being sacrosanct and having real power in the context of moral and social regression, and ideological and policy vagueness, is more myth than reality.
Although choosing not to vote is considered spitting in the face of those who died for the right to universal franchise, voting without real change — in material and ontological terms (sense of purpose, human value, self-determination and actualisation) — experienced by the majority of the most disadvantaged and socially marginalised of our country, democracy becomes a mere “show”. What is required to salvage democracy in South Africa is to constructively exercise the right not to vote.
But we cannot arrive at this point of political enlightenment if we cannot tap into our human side, recognising that the realisation of our own freedoms is not mutually exclusive from that of the worst-off in society.
Though apartheid was the common enemy around which an organic solidarity culminating in the United Democratic Front was built, 25 years on, liberal democracy has assumed this mantle. The only difference is that now we have the right to be complicit in the oppression of our fellow citizens and ourselves. External institutional change is improbable in the absence of internal spiritual change, understanding the value and power of our human agency.
We, as South Africans, should consider an alternative path, away from a pragmatic utilitarian approach to instigating democratic change to a more idealistic one. After all, great revolutions in the story of human history essentially begin with an idealistic vision that rests and starts with the most marginalised and a visceral sense of injustice.
Perhaps for us to experience the true virtues of a democracy, we need to introspect about how we view the other in our society and to transcend stereotypical readings across racial, ethnic, religious and class groupings.
A true expression of individual freedom is only possible if we come to terms with how we contribute to social and democratic decline. A new order of politics whereby we think and act with and from the worst-off in our society, rather than on behalf of them, is required.
A vote is a procedural expression of our views through a representative structure, not a subjective expression of individual will directed towards a collective freedom.
Romain Francis is a lecturer in the political sciences department at Unisa. These are his own views