OPINION: The low voter turnout should worry all parties, not just the ANC. It signals a dangerous trend that could ultimately undermine the democratic project, writes Professor Sipho Seepe.
“CYRIL Gets Booed Again”, screamed a street poster of a daily. The headline was in reference to the ignominy President Cyril Ramaphosa suffered when he turned up to vote in his Chiawelo, Soweto, home on November 1.
Ramaphosa had become used to such a hostile reception in the surrounds of Soweto. This humiliating treatment was a curtain-raiser to what awaited the ANC at the polls.
As usual, the party has been quick to jump into a denialist mode, claiming that it would self-correct. It said as much when it lost the City of Cape Town. Ditto, the Western Cape. The poll served to shatter several myths.
The first is the myth that Ramaphosa is more popular than the ANC. The booing baptism puts paid to this fabricated narrative. He may be so in the suburbs, but certainly not among those that face the daily grind of poverty and unfulfilled promises. Instead of acknowledging that the era of Rama-phoria is long over, Ramaphosa’s drum majorettes have been swift to suggest that had it not been for him, things would have gotten worse.
The second myth to be dispelled is the ANC’s claim that it is the leader of society. The voters sent an unequivocal message that says “not anymore”. For too long, the ANC has behaved as if it owns the majority of black people. The precipitous decline the party has suffered should wake it up from this seemingly deep-seated hallucination.
The third myth to be shattered is the ANC’s unstated assumption that it can treat black people as an unthinking and gullible mob and still get away with it. Without any sense of shame and irony, the party went about asking voters to place their trust in it while it has demonstrably failed to honour even the most basic conditions of employment of its own members. It would seem that the idea that charity begins at home escapes it.
In the face of this failure, the party didn’t seem to find it odd that its members went about distributing the usual food parcels and money to churchgoers with gay abandon when its employees remained unpaid for months.
Fourth, voters sent the strong message that they are totally unimpressed by the current leadership’s tendency to use scapegoats to explain away its failures. The party had gotten used to using the former president, Jacob Zuma, as a whipping boy whenever it faced challenges. The master narrative of the nine wasted years no longer holds water. It was dishonest in the first place.
It sought to distance Ramaphosa from the Zuma administration, of which he was part. The voter would have none of that nonsense. Interestingly, this is the same grouping that is quick to invoke the notion of collective leadership and collective responsibility when it is convenient. Whereas Zuma was to blame for everything, the media fraternity has been at pains to shield its puppet master.
Fifth, it is probable that some of the voters would have come to a determination that a party that cannot honour its own conference resolutions is unlikely to honour its electoral commitments. The party has ceased to be a party of liberation. It appears to be more interested in being in power than in disrupting the current arrangement that places African people on the periphery of the economy.
It comes as no surprise that the DA’s John Steenhuisen has repeatedly indicated that his party is willing to be in partnership with the Ramaphosa faction in the ANC. For Steenhuisen, Ramaphosa is no more than the Maimane of the ANC.
The seventh myth to be dispelled is the notion that the ANC’s demonstrable poor performance would translate into an exodus to other parties. Ordinarily, this should have been the case. But that was not to be. The gains by the opposition parties were minuscule compared to the numbers of eligible ANC voters that chose to withhold their vote. In doing so, they do not regard the main opposition parties as the alternative.
For all its sins, the ANC can rely on its historical capital. For many of its supporters, it is a case of better the devil you know than the one you don’t. In addition, there are some who hold the view that the main problem of the ANC is the current leadership. All it requires is to remove it so as to restore it to its former glory of being a liberation movement.
The failure by opposition parties to attract the disenchanted ANC voters can be attributed to their inability to present unique value propositions. They have, instead, harped on the perceived failures of the ANC. In terms of new ideas, they bring not much to the table.
Even so, the opposition parties have failed to appreciate that the ANC’s performance has been uneven. There are areas where it has done well. Lumping all this into one basket of failure has not endeared them to the voter. The ANC has delivered in areas such as the provision of water and electricity in a number of informal settlements. Informal settlements are, by definition, unplanned. No country can budget for informal settlements that mushroom overnight. And these have been epicentres of delivery protests.
The mushrooming of informal settlements can be traced to our apartheid history. Free movement and urban migration was controlled through laws that prohibited free movement across the country. This came at a heavy price. Free movement was the preserve of apartheid beneficiaries. This sense of being free cannot be factored out when addressing the perceived failures of the ANC government. Be that as it may, the current leadership of the ANC must take full responsibility for the dismal performance of the party in these elections.
In a normal society, the leadership would have been called to resign immediately. What is certain is that the ANC will whip up some new scapegoats to account for its performance.
Finally, the low voter turnout should worry all parties, not just the ANC. It signals a dangerous trend that would ultimately undermine the democratic project.
* Professor Sipho Seepe is Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Institutional Support at the University of Zululand.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the DFA.