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Voting with their feet: The turnout in last month’s election was the lowest since the dawn of democracy, a reflection of growing mistrust in South Africa’s democratic institutions. (Delwyn Verasamy, Mail & Guardian)

Has the discourse of progressive politics alienated the majority of South Africans?

/ 13 June 2024

The theme from most progressive political parties was that the 2024 election was definitive, as were those of 1994. This slogan expressed a much-needed reconfiguration of the political landscape from the feckless and indecisive executive leadership in the governing party.

Although this election was indeed a turning point, it exposed a glaring political disjuncture between the voter and the politician. The election laid bare the limitations of how politicians and citizens understand what progressive politics is.

This cynicism and apathy was seen in these elections having the lowest voter turnout since democracy. Of the 40 million eligible voters, 27 million registered and only 16 million voted.

With all the proposed progressive policies, speaking to core issues such as hunger and the food crisis proposed by Rise Mzansi, an increase in the Basic Income Grant by the Economic Freedom Fighters and the Tintswalo beneficiary tagline by the ANC, how is it in the final analysis, that populism and the regression to tribal and racial laagers won the day?

How did the Democratic Alliance (DA) preserve its status quo despite the outcry about the burnt flag and alleged racism in their corridors of power? It seems there is a glaring disconnect between the politicians claiming to represent progressive views in society and the people they purport to represent. Politicians go out to hear what people are saying during election campaigns, but do they listen carefully?

The Patriotic Alliance, for example, was steadfast in its message on immigration and mass deportation. While it’s not progressive to deport people en masse and be xenophobic, there is clearly a deep-seated fear among many South Africans, to a point that they feel their economic well-being is threatened by economic migrants.

The messaging of “abahambe” seemed to have resonated with millions of people resulting in the increased number of votes for the Patriotic Alliance. The essence of representation in politics speaks to issues that immediately affect the lives of citizens. Instead, the voters associated the lack of material welfare with the figure of the foreigner. This is now a common theme as indicated in the rise of the far-right in the recent European Parliament elections, especially in Germany and France.   

South Africa’s elections have also shown how people can change their votes based on Trumpian populism and conservative sentiments. Politicians have also witnessed how the voter can cast their vote showing deep allegiance along factional and regional lines. KwaZulu-Natal is an illustration in these elections. 

It is also an impromptu and painful lesson for politicians who presumed that ideology is an important determinant for the voter, but these elections affirmed the emotiveness of the voter. It seems the majority of South Africans have become numb to progressive politics, the ideas it advances, such as building a non-racial society and allegiance to constitutionalism. 

Have politicians done enough to understand the sentimental head space of the voter and assess the general conscientisation of society? Is it that progressive politics has alienated the majority, a discourse seen as one for intellectuals and academia, bearing no fruits for the average citizen? Why have the majority of South Africans abandoned the dream of supporting parties focused on facilitating projects for nation-building, social cohesion and fighting against gender-based violence? Therefore, what does it mean to be progressive in the current global and local economic context? 

Is it driving towards a developmental state or the rupture of racial capitalism and changing the structure of the economy? 

These are pertinent questions for ideologues, sociologists and philosophers. I’m none the wiser. But, in the immediate there is the voter who seeks redress on their current conditions, who through the vote have disparaged the progressive and elevated the conservative, the populist and the fearmonger. These are the realities and characteristics of the voter and the politics of the day. This voter includes the black, the white, the Indian, the coloured, the rich, the middle class and the poor. They have all for some reason contributed towards the outcome of this election.

No progressive party outright convinced these people that progressive politics remains the order of the day. There is a pattern of society gravitating towards a centre-right political culture, explaining why there is a gravitation towards the DA/ANC coalition, which could be our reality for the next 20 years. 

Are South Africans becoming content with the tokenistic welfare system with some social redistribution elements but not disturbing the gross accumulation of the market economy? Some self-proclaimed Marxists have even changed their rhetoric after this election.

Another precarious matter is the increased number of spoiled ballots, which could form a sizable number of seats for any political party. This is another form of protest and apathy from the voter. Have South Africans become so despondent with democracy that they no longer see value in the very same processes that pillar it? How have we lost such a significant number of people as we move towards building the country?

The elections have also exposed a crisis in the opposition. Despite the determinant energy to remove the ANC from power, there will never be a synchronised approach towards building the alternative. The preoccupation with confrontational politics driven by the common enemy has led South Africa to this epoch. An epoch of uncertainty and now seeing the ANC drive the government of national unity agenda.

Does this strengthen governance and accountability or will it weaken the opposition?  Having witnessed governance paralysis and public service stability in local government elections, how best do parties consolidate agreements and ensure they do not plunge South Africa into a legislative and constitutional crisis?

This is the time where progressive political parties should stand steadfast to genuinely hear the voter’s voice and their concerns. In the final analysis, one hopes the government of national unity will reignite the significance of progressive politics and demonstrate the importance of not abandoning building and rebuilding Project SA as envisaged by our founding fathers and mothers.

Only actions will convince the voter.   

Gugu Ndima is a social commentator. Follow her on @Mandima_writer