Sat, 04 Jul 2020

The 20 million that got away: The mourning after the elections Tinyiko Maluleke SHARE THIS 13 minutes ago South Africans queue to cast their votes in Durban. (AFP/Marco Longari)

Wait. Before we mourn the lowest voter turn-out since Mandela; before arthritis-ridden fore-fingers of the fore-fathers and the fore-mothers go wagging at the allegedly apathetic youth, for neither registering nor turning out in numbers; before we castigate the IEC for failing to foresee some basic foreseeable developments; let us pause and acknowledge how beautiful a day the 8th of May 2019 was, overall.

What a splendid display of the "glorious human achievement" that is South African democracy, of which Nelson Mandela spoke at his inauguration in 1994! Throughout the day, South Africans filed into the 22 000 voting stations, there to renew their democracy vows, five years later and 25 years since the dawn of democracy.

But mourn we must too. As the election dust settles, another cloud of dust is rising. It is the dust of men and women caught in a stampede for Cabinet positions and other top jobs. The recently named premiers of seven provinces were the first to receive their "rewards". Soon they will "reward" others into their provincial executive committees in turn, and on it will go, this thinly-veiled system of patronage.

However, it is sad to note that little, if any of the policy principles and the national developmental needs, which featured prominently in the election manifestos and debates, seem to inform either the stampede or the subsequent appointments.

Perhaps the greatest message of the 2019 elections lies in the numbers of eligible and registered voters who chose to stay away. By world standards our turnout was not bad, we are told. On the contrary, I suggest that we should eschew self-congratulations on account of our supposedly above world-average 65% turnout. We have many reasons to stop and ponder.

Ten million voted for the ANC this time around. But there are 10 million eligible voters who couldn't be bothered to register. Add another 10 million who registered to vote but actually never did. This means there are 20 million votes that got away.

A bigger parallel election, with 20 million voters more could have been held. Now, that puts the proportion of votes and the percentages received by the 14 parties whose candidates will populate our National Assembly seats into perspective. Indeed, it puts the 57% proportional majority of the ANC into perspective.

One of the most lamentable nuances about the 20 million that got away, is that less that 20% of eligible first-time voters, that is, young people, actually registered to vote.

Stay-away voters not apathetic

So-called "democracy fatigue" is indeed a global phenomenon. But in many countries, voter apathy goes hand in glove with political apathy. But political apathy is the last thing South Africans can be accused of.

Every other day, there are South Africans out in the streets protesting and contesting the abuse of power - a feat we maintained right up to the day of the elections. There is probably no living South African who has never been involved in or affected by protest. I bet this reality may not resonate with many Swiss and Singaporean citizens. My guess is that very few of the 20 million South Africans who stayed away have never been touched by protests - as participants, spectators or as "victims".

Practical barriers to registration and voting notwithstanding, South African voter absenteeism must be understood first and foremost as strategic, informed and intended. Their absence is of an articulate and eloquent nature. Though we may not have reached the levels of Tunisia, South Korea, Algeria, Sudan and Egypt, South African social and political activists - especially the youth - are among the few in the world who can translate social media activism into feet-on-the-ground and vice versa.

The South African political system has recently been brought to the brink of illegitimacy, while the economic system has been comatose for a long time. This, thanks to a government-sponsored programme to destroy state agencies and departments in order to capture the entire state and redirect its resources for the benefit of a few individuals and families. It was sold to the general populace as radical economic transformation.

We now know that the main state capture project - generally associated with the Gupta brothers - forked off into a thousand offshoots, inspiring many copycat programmes across the provinces, municipalities, state-owned enterprises (SOEs), political parties and the private sector. In a political environment in which all the major political parties increasingly appear to have a lot in common when it comes to a predilection to opulence, unethical behaviour and corruption, is it surprising that many South Africans chose to exercise their democratic right not to vote?

Perhaps the most devastating effect of the state capture project was the extent to which government departments and SOEs, including SARS, were deliberately and systematically rendered inefficient and ineffective. It was, for example, quite sad, to watch the Department of Home Affairs in a comical and last-minute clamour to issue ID documents on the eve and on the day of the elections.

South Africans still dream of Mandela's covenant

All of the above notwithstanding, we must still make sense of the fact that nationally, 10 million out of 17 million South Africans rooted for the ANC, 2.5 million for the DA, and just under two million for the EFF.

It means that the majority of those who turned out to vote, continue to believe that, their difference of tone and emphasis notwithstanding, the covenant of which Mandela spoke in his inauguration speech, is saf in the combined hands of the ANC, DA and the EFF.

Mandela defined that covenant in these words: "We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity - a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world." Needless to say, we are nowhere near the fulfilment of that national covenant - not in terms of race, gender, class and the urban rural divide.

And yet these results seem to suggest that a fair majority of South Africans still hold on to the dream epitomised in the Mandela covenant.

If the ANC still represents, for the average South African voter who turns up on elections day, the "best" vehicle available for the attainment of the Mandela dream, an increasing number of South African voters will no longer entrust this dream entirely or only to the ANC. It seems to me that, as well as the ANC's neo-liberal economic nationalism, South African voters need the insurance and the assurance of the DA's liberalism, the EFF's boiling anger, the IFP's traditionalism and the FF Plus's white minority "slaan terug" politics. All South African political parties, especially the ruling party have to take into account, the political dynamics represented not only in the top five, but in all 14 parties with seats in Parliament.

If I may give a self-evident hint to all political parties in the South African political terrain, inside and outside Parliament: Forget about the 17 million who recently voted. They are likely to vote in the same general pattern at the slightest provocation. However, there are 20 million voters out there - battered, weary, dormant, despondent and . They are looking for a leadership that will take them to Mandela's land of promise.

- Professor Tinyiko Maluleke is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Pretoria Center for the Advancement of Scholarship. Follow him @ProfTinyiko

- News24 SHARE THIS Read more on: nelson mandela | voter registration | elections 2019

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