As our democracy matures, we need a small revolution of our own, a revolution in voter thinking about choice. Before we see the real balance our democracy needs, we must see a rapid swing away from racial voting and toward issue voting. The dominant issue in South Africa is delivery; the delivery of jobs and the delivery of services most crucially.
Many South Africans, across the spectrum have not yet experienced a government which is truly good to all. The NP government of white privilege and the ANC government of cadre privilege will be remembered for serving only some South Africans.
The Apartheid government made itself infamous for harnessing the wealth and human resources of a country to enrich a racial minority, and the new government was always going to have a mammoth task transforming it into a government which delivers for all.
But in too many respects, the ANC Government isn’t doing much better than its predecessor. Non-whites in general, and blacks in particular, continue to live in poor conditions, with little real prospect of material improvement. Cadres of the ANC meanwhile have jobs and contracts which they aren’t doing well enough to ensure the required service delivery and economic growth required.
What we saw in Egypt over the past weeks was not a people’s struggle for better delivery, but instead for the fundamental bedrock we already take for granted here in South Africa: a democratic system of government. The Egyptians want to be able to choose one party over another, one public representative over another. They want real choice.
Technically, we have real choice in South Africa but only to the extent that everyone in the country has the theoretical freedom to vote as they so choose. I believe that there are two practical limitations to that choice: intimidation and lack of experience.
First, threats that pensions and grants will be cancelled if beneficiaries do not vote ANC are widespread and well-known. This claim is repeatedly rubbished by the ANC as being unfounded and unproven and yet political activists come across it election after election and on an increasingly regular basis.
Second, the structural inertia among South Africans communities means that few South Africans get to experience the level of service delivered by a party other than the ANC. By this I mean that the lack of economic resources to travel or live in another part of the country means that a great many South Africans have no frame of reference when considering their choices beyond beyond the ANC they know.
I am regularly contacted by friends who have been to Cape Town or another DA-run municipality for the first time. Quite often they say something like, “Now I understand what you guys are on about”, because for the first time they have actually experienced the quality of government delivered by a government focused on delivery.
The miracle of our South African democracy came with a ryder, which like a nasty spell, keeps our democracy from realising its full potential. The race-obsessed mindset which most South Africans have regardless of their desires one way or another is the barrier to the informed choices we need South Africans to make.
The democratic system has become so popular, despite its inherent inefficiency, because it is the only system which manages to put real power in the hands of the people governed by the system. Democracy, however, does not functional very well when one party dominates with an overwhelming majority. This scenario allows that party to abuse its popular position without the real fear of enough voters turning against it in favour of another. One party or one party-dominant democratic systems the world over, with few exceptions, bear testament to the abuses which take place when the voter is dis-empowered.
In the wake of the Egyptian revolution, we are reading of Zimbabweans in South Africa being told to go back to Zimbabwe and stage a revolution of their own. Why such a revolution is not likely to happen, given the proximity of the army to Mugabe is clear, but the topicality of the subject reminds us of the widespread unhappiness with the number of Zimbabweans living in South Africa.
And yet the policies which drove the collapse of the Zimbabwean economy and the flight Southward of millions of its people are too often cited by individuals within the ANC as examples of how South Africa could be doing things. Nationalisation is forever being placed on the agenda, the land problem is regularly directed toward the Zimbabwean solution and the question of foreign ownership remains a concern. These are the grand populist policies, efficacy cast aside, that dominate the politics of out-of-balance democracies such as ours.
I want to see the control of South Africa’s democracy where it needs to be, in the hands of voters who genuinely believe that they have the power. Voters need to believe that their vote can bring the change they want to see in their government, and that is only possible through stiff political competition.