News / Opinion

Shelley Loe and Russel Crystal
7 minute read
4 Oct 2021
1:36 pm

Elections 2021: Will SA politicians feel the wrath of ‘bored’ and ‘gatvol’ citizens?

Shelley Loe and Russel Crystal

South Africans would rather deal with telemarketers than listen to more political party promises, yet opposition parties are too boring to capitalise.

Picture File: A general view of local elections campaign posters on 10 May 2021 in Pretoria. Picture for illustration: Gallo Images/Lefty Shivambu

Bored, contemptuous and gatvol

That’s the description of the average South African voter (excluding the ANC elites, sycophants and grant dependents, of course). 

The biggest problem with this is that political parties are either unaware of this dark state of affairs, or are ignoring it.

Maybe President Cyril Ramaphosa, who recently admitted to making mistakes but promising not to make them again, has some inkling.

However, he also knows that in many rural and low-income areas which traditionally support the ANC, people’s apathy is resolved through social welfare grants. For the rest of us in urban and suburban areas, including towns outside of the metros, we simply couldn’t give a damn. 

That’s the boredom part.

We’ve become contemptuous of politicians. It is difficult to find someone who truly respects the position of a member of Parliament (MP)  – telesales people are held in higher esteem. The average South African voter would rather binge watch reruns of Keeping Up With The Kardashians than listen to another party leader spout forth.

Gatvol, for sure.

We have been let down so often that most of us don’t have the energy to even get angry anymore. In fact, people have even got beyond the fear of a future under the ANC. While former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher once asked people to vote their hopes and not their fears, opposition parties in SA should be able, without trying, to get out the fear vote.

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Fear of an economic meltdown. Fear of the National Health Insurance, expropriation without compensation, Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment and other menacing acronyms coming out of Luthuli House.

Fear of poverty and oppression under corrupt elitists. But no. No matter the warnings issued by Magnus Heystek, Big Daddy Liberty (Sihle Ngobese), Ted Blom, Roman Cabanac and the like, South Africans are simply keeping their own bubbles inflated, desperately hoping that when it inevitably bursts, they won’t find themselves in a pit latrine.

A week is a long time in politics, so the saying goes. But in South Africa, a week feels like a decade, which explains why, after only 26 years, most of us have lost the will to care, never mind vote.

The ANC is beyond redemption, on every level. The only possible rescue plan for the country is for the ANC to go, in its entirety.

There isn’t a faction or a wing or even an individual that has the credibility to lead a breakaway, let alone save what is left. It is a broken, disgraceful organisation and South Africans recognise this.

What’s worse, opposition parties don’t seem to have the savvy or the inclination to say it like it is. Now is the precise time for some hardcore, truthful campaign messages to jerk voters out of their lethargy. With the governing party at an all-time low, you’d think the opposition would go in for the kill. 

The evidence, if we needed more, is in their campaigns. The Democratic Alliance (DA) is running an unimaginative, deadly boring campaign, which started with “Time for Change” and has morphed into “The DA Get Things Done” and “United We Win”. Their ward candidates’ posters mostly look like Home Affairs ID photos.

The EFF relies entirely on the face of Julius Malema to stir voters, but even his brand of disruptiveness has lost its ability to disrupt. He’s pretty much establishment too, not least because he and his mates couldn’t resist the joys of capitalism and reverted to their ANC roots to steal a few benefits of their own.

Herman Mashaba is also the main drawcard of his new party, ActionSA, but he’s not a household name outside of Johannesburg and, fairly or not, there’s a perception that he’s the DA guy who will do business with the EFF. That’s hard to live down.

He also walked out of the DA with Mmusi Maimane, its erstwhile leader, who lost the party almost half a million votes in the last election for unnecessarily riling up white voters. In Trump-like fashion, Mashaba prides himself on NOT being a politician, but his choices smack of a naivety that belies any similarity. 

Both the IFP and Freedom Front Plus have reduced themselves to purposeless empty suits, along with a multitude of smaller parties which are failing to excite. Nevertheless, they still hold some appeal with voters who are gatvol with the “broad church” mainstream parties, especially those small parties based on voter identity, such as race, culture, geographical areas and gender.

In SA’s proportional representation electoral system – where every vote counts – any vote gained by one party is a loss to another. 

The crux of the matter is that there is no one in SA who is promising to make South Africa great again.

Civil society’s gains

Out of this vacuum, has emerged an interesting phenomenon: the civic/community-type organisation – the doers of society who are stepping up to the plate because political parties aren’t.

It started with the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa), which impressively did what the opposition couldn’t, and stopped e-tolls in their tracks.

Solidarity has built a private university, and AfriForum, among other victories, won massively impactful Constitutional Court cases, protecting the Afrikaans language and defeating race-based business support by the state. Paratus did more for gun rights than any political party.

These types of organisations just started doing things that weren’t being done – repairing potholes, standing up for ordinary people, solving service delivery problems such as the provision of water in bankrupt municipalities.

But most notably, it was communities and the private sector who got on with protecting businesses and residences from destruction when a paralysed government did nothing for days during the recent looting and vandalising following Jacob Zuma’s incarceration.

Ordinary people armed themselves, organised themselves, and stopped more lives and livelihoods being lost while the president babbled and the South African Police Service (Saps) stood well back from the fray.

It was an important moment that political parties would do well to notice. If voters realise that their faith is better placed in their community leaders, their civic and ratepayers’ associations, or their cultural organisations – even their churches – to get things done, then politicians had better sit up.

There could well be an underground shift beginning to shake surface politics in South Africa, where ordinary people take up the cudgels and challenge politicians of all persuasions to do their jobs. There could be a surprising rise in fortunes for independent candidates in our wards and even community-endorsed MPs and MPLs on the horizon.

The disdain by citizens for politics and in the political system itself is a very big threat to political parties in South Africa.

It is disdain for a government that is notable only for the speed in which it has destroyed a country with such huge potential. It is disdain for opposition parties who have failed to stop the rot. It is a disdain that has grown steadily, evolving with the times we find ourselves in. 

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The result of the aloof approach of politicians to voters outside of election time, is that voters have detached themselves from relying on politicians. Short of a political party pulling a rabbit out of the hat, their alienation from citizens will increase, as evidenced by the steady decrease in voter turnout from 88% in 1999 to 65% in 2019.

If the phenomenon of the growth of civic organisations becomes a challenge to the hegemony of political parties, voters may well regain some interest in future elections. Competition always improves service delivery. It is a light, no matter how dim.

This opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of The Citizen. Have your say by mailing your opinions on the upcoming local government elections to online@citizen.co.za.