Monday, March 24, 2014

You and your vote: to go big or small?


LOOKING back at file images of the iconic 1994 elections there are some profound things that strike one. Firstly, there is joy – all the faces are happy, shining with hope. And secondly, the majority of those ululating at the pre-election rallies are the poor.

Fast forward 20 years and the poor are still in the streets, except that this time it’s a new generation, and the young faces have contorted into anger, and the dancing has been around burning barricades.

Ostensibly, the question is a lack of ‘service delivery’, especially to impoverished communities and far flung municipalities. In truth the issue is far deeper, for those at the barricades are the economically disenfranchised.

South Africa may have indeed closed many gaps since 1994 in terms of human rights, the supply of running water, electricity, housing, health, job equity and economic growth, but for those at the bottom of the ladder it just hasn’t been enough.

Some analysts claim the problem is not resources, but the capacity to use them. For example, we are told of municipalities where executive officials (often appointed due to cronyism) have proved incapable of reading balance sheets.

Others maintain that politics is about perception, and that what most South Africans have witnessed since 1994 has been rampant materialism at the hands of new elites.  And then there is the spectre of corruption in the public and private sector.

Many will argue that this unhealthy climate of immorality has been engendered by our very own president; himself surrounded by nepotism and personal scandals such as illegitimate children and Nkandla. Zuma’s irresolute presidency costs the country nearly R300 a minute.

South Africans have also had to witness a systematic erosion of democracy via political attacks on the judiciary, assaults on Chapter Nine institutions such as the Public Protector and the promulgation of the Protection of State Information Bill, a Stalinist step backwards into the darkness.

This is what is experienced by most South Africans as the language of power; it is a language that drowns out the good work done by certain government departments and certain hardworking ministers who do really care. And that is the pity, for South Africa has travelled a long road since 1994.

For all of the above reasons, the elections of May 2014 are going to be critical in deciding the trajectory of the country. Do we go bleating over the cliff, or do we dig our heels in the sand and say enough?

The fault line in our democracy is that in South Africa we only vote for parties. We do not vote for MP’s as in the Westminster system, nor do we vote for the president as in the US. In South Africa whoever wins the most party votes get the highest proportion of seats in parliament and elects the president.

That is why the Dina Pule’s of this world, crooked politicians who should be banished forever from public life, can pop up again in a party list and not lose their seats. That is why Zuma, who would probably lose a public presidential vote tomorrow, will survive to live another day inside the tri-partite alliance.

Let it be said that whilst pre-election tri-partite alliance infighting and trade union shenanigans have attracted the most media attention, opposition parties have had their marriages and divorces too.

But not is all bad. On the positive side, smaller parties that would not traditionally win a seat in a winner-takes-all constituency set-up, can still find their way into parliament on the number of votes cast across the country.

This guarantees that minorities are not extinguished on the national stage, one of the pre-conditions of the post apartheid peace process.

The other thing about small parties is that one is voting more for a known candidate, more for a recognisable face. Unlike in the bigger, faceless parties where those on the lists are often anonymous, you can see what you are going to get.

However, there is debate about the future of smaller parties. If one looks at the voting figures, most have shed supporters since 1999, and if trends continue, many will disappear by 2019. New ones still have to face the ballots, but it is expected that the freshly-birthed left-wing – red berets and all – will ride a wave of tri-partite discontent into parliament.

Other small parties, particularly the religious and black consciousness ones, will scoot around hoping to pick up enough votes. In our community the good news is that the obscurantist prelates up north have finally realised that they’re in South Africa.

But what the small parties do offer in contrast to the bigger ones is mobility, and in places where the ruling party could find itself embattled, they become the stuff of which vital coalitions are made.

So, for those poised to vote there are a number of options – and contradictions – within the existing framework.

Firstly, does one go the sunshine route on the biggest party? Does one vote for it on sentiment? But then it could mean supporting  a corruption-tainted president and his cronies. Can the party be separated from the Zulu mafia? Can the party’s good guys deliver in spite of the bad guys?

Secondly, the second biggest party has managed to keep the streets clean in the Western Cape and tweet the most, but is thoroughly confused on the Middle East. What does one vote for here? And what about its neo-liberal (seen as anti-poor) policies balanced against the perception of stable local governance?

Thirdly, there are the small parties. Does one go with the academic lady in the headgear who divorced the second biggest party? Who’s in there from the BC? Does one go the religious identity route?

At the end of it all, however, ours is a democracy that will only mature through civic vigilance on civil liberties and by honouring its freedoms. One of the best ways is voting – and whilst democracy is not perfect, it’s the best we have.