The real story of South Africa's national election

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By Dale McKinley

May 11, 2014 -- South African Civil Society Information Service, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the author's permission -- No sooner had the final results of the just concluded 2014 national elections been announced than President Jacob Zuma gave a predictably self-congratulatory speech lauding the result as “the will of all the people”. The reality however is that the African National Congress’ victory came from a distinct minority of “the people”. The real "winner", as has been the case since the 2004 elections, was the stay-away "vote".

Since South Africa’s first-ever democratic election in 1994, the hard facts are that there has been a directly proportionate relationship between the overall decline in support for the ANC and the rise of the stay-away "vote". A quick look at the relevant percentages/numbers from each election confirms the reality.

1994: Of the 23,063,910 eligible voters, 85.53 per cent (19,726,610) voted while the remaining 14.47 per cent (3,337,300) stayed away. The ANC received support from 53,01 per cent (12,237,655) of the eligible voting population.

1999: Of the 25,411,573 eligible voters, 62.87 per cent (15,977,142) voted while the remaining 37.13 per cent (9,434,431) stayed away. The ANC received support from 41.72 per cent (10,601,330) of the eligible voting population.

2004: Of the 27,994,712 eligible voters, 55.77 per cent (15,612,671) voted while the remaining 44.23 per cent (12,382,041) stayed away. The ANC received support from 38.87 per cent (10,880,917) of the eligible voting population.

2009: Of the 30 224 145 eligible voters, 59,29 percent (17 919 966) voted while the remaining 40,71 percent (12 304 179) stayed away. The ANC received support from 38,55 percent (11 650 748) of the eligible voting population.

2014: Of the 31,434,035 eligible voters, 59.34 per cent (18,654,457) voted while the remaining 40.66 per cent (12,779,578) stayed away. The ANC received support from 36.39 per cent (11,436,921) of the eligible voting population.

It is quite an amazing "storyline" with two key tropes. At the same time that South Africa’s eligible voting population -- based on estimates of successive censuses -- has increased by 8.4 million in 20 years of democracy, the number of people who have chosen not to vote has increased by 9,4 million. Simultaneously, electoral support for the ANC, as a percentage of that voting population, has declined precipitously from 53 to 36 per cent.

One of the main reasons why this "story" is most often buried in the margins of our political and electoral conversations and consciousness is that the official version conveniently ignores primarily those citizens (a majority of whom are young people between the ages of 18 and 20) who have not registered to vote and, secondarily, those who have registered but chosen not to vote. It is similar to the politically inspired and artificially constructed distinction between the "official" and "unofficial' unemployment rate that has the effect of erasing millions from the officially recognised ranks of the unemployed.

As a result, the official version of the 2014 national election (in many cases, mirrored by the media) is one in which there is a “high voter turnout” and where the ANC victory is presented as indicative of support from the “majority of voters”. And so it is that the almost 13 million who decided not to participate in the 2014 elections (whether registered or not) are effectively airbrushed from the picture, while the 11,5 million who voted for the ANC become “the people”. Stalin would be smiling approvingly.

What does this largely hidden tale tell us about the state of South Africa’s political system and more broadly, of its democracy? First, that a growing portion of the adult (voting-age) population, but concentrated among the youth, has become alienated from the political system. In societies like South Africa that are framed by a liberal capitalist socio-political order, the mere existence and functioning of representative democratic institutions and processes increasingly mask the decline of meaningful popular democratic participation and control. This is in a context where elections have become the political playground of those with access to capitalist patronage and where electoral choice is largely reduced to different shades of grey.

Since the act of voting in such national elections is itself representative of either a belief in/acceptance of the existing order or that meaningful change can result from such an act, the counter-act of not voting can be seen as representative of the opposites. In other words, there is no necessary or inherent connection between voting and the deepening of democracy in ways that can make a systemic difference in the lives of those who feel/ experience exclusion and marginalisation.

This speaks to a reality which those on the "other side of the fence" appear wholly unwilling to face; that for some time now, almost half of South Africans able to vote clearly do not see voting as being in their social, material and political interests. Apathy is simply a convenient and patronising "explanation". It also speaks to the refusal to recognise that the (pre-)conditions for meaningful and popular participation in any representational act or process are embedded in changing the structural relations of power, whether grounded in social, economic, political, gender or knowledge relations.

Indeed, the developmental legacy of post-1994 South Africa has been, and continues to be, characterised by the false twinning of a democratic form to the needs of a capitalist "market". This has resulted in a creeping intolerance – fuelled predominately by those in positions of political and economic power and policed by the coercive capacity of the state – of legitimate political/social dissent, which is the lifeblood of any genuine democracy. It has also produced a situation wherein institutionalised practices and forms of representative democracy such as elections – while largely accepted as a legitimate form of democratic expression – make little practical difference in the lives of so many since the key societal (developmental) decisions are taken by those that participate in, and manage, that "market".

In his post-election speech President Zuma stated that the ANC’s electoral victory represents an “overwhelming mandate from our people … and reaffirms that the ANC remains the only true hope for the majority of our people”. Clearly, he and his organisation have not read the whole story.

[Dale McKinley is an independent writer, researcher and lecturer as well as political activist in South Africa.]

Voting is over — new battles begin

By Terry Bell

May 11, 2014 -- Terry Bell Writes, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- The voting is over, the counting complete — and there have been no major surprises in South Africa’s 2014 elections. But for many it will be recriminations rather than celebrations that will follow what will almost certainly be regarded as a watershed, signalling changes to come.

Many pats on the back over coming weeks may contain daggers of deceit and there will almost certainly be a hollow ring to some of the claimed improvements and successes by various parties and groups. This was, after all, the first election since the transition from apartheid that has seen serious fissures opening up within the governing alliance, with elements of the trade union movement leading the way.

But much of the acrimony in the trade union movement was subdued in the run-up to polling day on May 7. There was not even an outcry when recently reinstated Cosatu general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, deviated from his mandated May Day script. Instead he delivered a carefully crafted series of dissident barbs at the very alliance he was instructed by the executive to support.

This was, in fact, the first major indication that the hastily papered-over differences within Cosatu and the alliance as a whole were set soon to tear apart. And although the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) is making most of the running, it is not alone in taking a stand against the long-established, ANC-led, tripartite alliance that incorporates the SA Communist Party and Cosatu.

The eight other Cosatu affiliated unions that last year backed the Numsa call for a special national congress remain in support. But even the usually solidly pro-establishment SA Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) is clearly split, especially following the suspension of union president Thobile Ntola after he came out in support of Vavi.

There were similar splits in Sadtu in 2008 when former Sadtu and Cosatu president, Willie Madisha was expelled. However, unlike Vavi and Ntola who continue to support the unity of Cosatu, Madisha allied himself with the then newly formed Congress of the People and tried to set up an alternative trade union federation.

Elements within the Cosatu executive clearly hoped that Vavi and Ntola would make a similar choice and that Numsa too, would break away. But they have stayed put, confident that they have enough support at rank and file level to unseat the current Cosatu executive at a national congress.

Although members of the executive give private assurances that such a congress will not be called, the courts may force their hand since this refusal clearly goes against the Cosatu constitution. The courts are to be asked, apparently as a matter of urgency, to rule on this matter.

At the same time, the Cosatu executive this week lost two of the most vociferous opponents of Vavi and of the Numsa position. National Union of Mineworkers president, Senzeni Zokwana and National Health Education and Allied Workers Union general secretary, Fikile Majola are now on their way to parliament on an ANC ticket.

This move into parliament by senior union leaders following every election has strengthened the argument among Cosatu dissidents that the federation is merely being used as a stepping stone to parliamentary seats and into business; that, as Numsa has maintained, Cosatu is “becoming a labour desk of the ANC”.

However, Numsa’s withdrawal of support for the alliance may not be shared to the same degree by members of other unions, including those in the eight that support the special congress call. Most of the opposition within Cosatu seems based on criticism of the current ANC leadership and, in particular, of President Jacob Zuma.

But most — if not all — Cosatu unions will probably attend the “socialist conferences” that Numsa is pledged to convene this year. Such a call would be in line with a decision taken by the federation in 1994 and never acted on.

Independent unions and those affiliated to the National Council of Trade Unions should also attend, along with a range of community groups and the often fractious fragments of the radical Left. They could be joined by supporters of the Sidikiwe-Vukani campaign that lays claim to having opened up much of the recent debate about the electoral system and the political future.

They will meet, aware that a survey last year of Cosatu shop stewards revealed a majority preference for a labour party. So the political landscape and the shape of the trade union movement seems about to undergo considerable change. And this is likely to increase the ferocity of the coming electoral battles.