In the Star and Cape Times
15 September 2008
By Zubeida Jaffer*
ANC president Jacob Zuma has acknowledged that the greatest challenge for his party in the upcoming elections would be getting people out to vote. An internal ANC survey has found that it may lose its majorities in at least three provinces – the Western Cape, the Northern Cape and Gauteng. A major fall-off of voters in the next election does not augur well for democracy. While the ANC may technically continue to secure the overall majority nationally, further erosion of the voter base will dent the broad legitimacy it requires to rule effectively. The divisions within its own ranks already present a problem. Polokwane demonstrated however that the party was able to navigate these difficulties successfully. Unfortunately, the tensions appear to have further intensified around the Zuma trial and the present finalisation of lists of those who will qualify for party seats. While it appears to be consumed by these difficulties, many of those who have been staunch ANC voters are being lost by the way.
Both in Gauteng and in the Western Cape, there are informal discussions about the range of options open to those who have traditionally voted ANC. The first impulse appears to be to stay away from the polls and to show disaffection by not voting. The second impulse is to encourage voters to go to the polls and spoil their ballot papers. The third is to vote for one of the opposition parties. The fourth is to form a single-issue party to campaign for direct representation and to call on all ANC voters to voice their disapproval of the party’s performance by voting for this party. Some are arguing that staying away from the polls will amount to a passive action that will do little to strengthen the democratic process. Spoiling the ballot papers in turn, while more active, will not be a wake up call for the ruling party since it will be difficult to differentiate between genuine spoiling and protest spoiling. Voting for the opposition parties appears to be finding little support. Some argue that their vote should go to the Democratic Alliance (DA) or the Independent Democrats (ID) since these represent the parties with the greatest chance for growth. Others argue that a vote for one of the smaller parties, such as the UDM, will be a vote for encouraging more voices rather than less. The difficulty most disaffected ANC voters have with the opposition parties is that they have not been able to draw to themselves significant black support essential for ensuring a non-racial future. The ANC remains the party that holds the attraction for the black community across the ethnic divide.
It cannot be denied that this capacity is an essential ingredient for securing national political stability. The fourth option circulating through the corridors of disaffection will require considerable courage since it requires open, public organisation. The idea under discussion is to form a party to campaign for electoral reform. This party will call for leaders to be directly responsible to the electorate at the next elections in 2014. Committed strongly to non-racialism and upholding the constitution, it will call on the government to hold a referendum to establish whether or not South Africans want to elect their president and their local members of parliament directly. Those punting this idea argue that there is something fundamentally flawed with the present electoral system. It was adequate for the transitional years but needs to mature into a system that will address the growing gap between the elected and the electorate. The present system gives overwhelming power to the political parties. The power should be placed firmly with the people. If leaders were answerable to their constituencies, they would arguably have been aware of the rising tide of xenophobia a few months ago and at least have expressed the frustrations facing their communities. There are many good leaders in the ANC. Unfortunately they have to give more of their time to keeping the party rather than the public happy. This is as a result of the electoral system all South Africans fashioned at the negotiation table. Is it not time to consider what reform is required to deepen the democracy so many sacrificed so much for? The present political fluidity, while scary, does provide an opportunity for robust debate and creative intervention. In true South African spirit, the debate is taking place at many different levels. How these discussions will be expressed through concrete action within the next few months will be of great importance to the public. The ANC could rescue its tarnished image if it reads the mood properly and acts in a boldly imaginative way. Zuma has urged the three alliance partners to campaign together and stress the achievements rather than the failings of the government. He particularly urged members at an election workshop in Johannesburg to speak out about how the ANC plans to resolve issues of crime and HIV/Aids.
This has all been done before and will hardly be an imaginative way to enthuse voters. What has bordered on the imaginative is his statement a few weeks ago that he will only serve a five-year term and put in place an open process for the election of the next ANC leader. It would be amazingly imaginative if he could say that during his time, he will commit himself to driving the process for electoral reform. He would forever be imprinted in the hearts of all South Africans if he could urge his party that it would be better for him not to stand for the position of president within the present political climate. Like Mbeki in the run-up to Polokwane, he and those around him are ignoring the fact that his candidacy is contributing to the development of a serious political crisis. The party’s own voters perceive it as leading the way in creating institutional instability. Its own voters are having difficulty in voting for a party that is elevating the fortunes of one man above the good of the party and the country. In terms of both the ANC and the South African constitution, the president of the ANC does not automatically have to be the president of the country. If Zuma could find the wisdom to hold back and ask his supporters to put forward an alternative presidential candidate who will appeal to South Africans broadly, he will forever be held in high esteem as one who put country and nation first above personal ambition. This act together with a commitment to electoral reform and institutional stability will go a long way to address his challenge of bringing voters out to the polls next year.
*Zubeida Jaffer, journalist and author, is presently an Honorary Research Associate at the UCT’s Centre for African Studies.