29 May 2010

State of the Nation

Right for protection

South Africa, a year and a bit after its last General Elections, finds itself in a mild hangover from the political hype and campaigning, which is only diluted by the football fever. In the previous elections the only post-apartheid governing party ANC was largely campaigning as the only option for the majority of the country’s previously disadvantaged population and the power struggle which within the party earlier had brought Jacob Zuma to leadership, ousted Thabo Mbeki and resulted to large extend with the birth of competing COPE party, seemed to have relatively small, although quite visible, impact to that. The main opposition party DA is burdened by its white image which in the new democracy is not one that at this point will attract broader support outside of the province of the Western Cape which traditionally has never been a stronghold for ANC.

ANC is a big party which has its history in the liberation struggle and it is that very aspect of it, that creates a confusion, as it still is a political home to people from communists to Christians, Africanists and more recently even business tycoons. It has got a Youth League which is visible in the media as well as a little less dominant Women’s League and it is part of the tripartite coalition with COSATU and Communist Party. In all this, and the historical context of South Africa, a vote becomes emotional decision rather than a targeted one as one cannot target any one specific politician, but rather a party, which is broad. It is therefore the electoral system in South Africa that is in need of rethinking.

Perhaps if the voting public would vote for an individual, they could target the mandate they are giving a bit more specifically and the politicians within parties would be forced to be more accountable. Now, that the party is in power, it is easier to avoid being pinned as a cause of any wrongdoings or lack of service delivery, which currently is causing increasing protests all over the country, as party is no one in specific; not even its leader as Zuma has many time proved. In reality, of course, party is its membership and other supporters and doesn’t exist in any other sphere, and therefore a different electoral system would perhaps bring in more accountability on a personal level and would avoid events like sidelining the President Mbeki in Polokwane by party insiders, even though the voting public in the previous elections had given their votes to ANC on the premise that it was lead by Mbeki. Now, in the middle of his term he was ousted and the voters were not asked, only, it was said by the party, the ANC acted within the mandate that had been given to it in general.

ANC, or some of its members have publicly disagreed with an electoral system that would be more personal basing their argument on the communal way of understanding society, as it is dominant in South Africa, and that South Africa is a young democracy, but there is some likelihood that this is also because they currently benefit from the electoral system, and their image is connected to many heroes of the struggle. The different kind of electoral system would probably take some attention from the movement and its image and ask more difficult questions from its individual candidates.

Electoral reform could perhaps also address what for instance happened with the COPE as their leading candidate, even if not the leader or indeed the presidential candidate, Mosiuoa Lekota who in all probability was the reason for many to vote for the party informed the nation soon after the polls closed that he will not become an MP, but instead remains working at the offices of the party. After having his face in many election posters, this seemed a little unusual.

Another kind of question is raised by one of the most vocal and visible politicians in the country, Julius Malema, who as a leader of the Youth League of the ANC gives many comments and statements which are in conflict with his own party, and even if he is one of the individuals who attract a lot of attention, and one assumes many votes, is not a member of the parliament. The people who vote ANC because of him, end up giving their votes to an organisation he so often criticises.

As a foreigner in South Africa, the country’s political climate always looks a little vague. The actual real life implications of the CODESA negotiations have been secret and one is left to guess what is even possible to happen realistically and what exactly are the conditions of IMF and World Bank loans (as was studied by Naomi Klein in Shock Doctrine). The many promises of the struggle, which in itself was such a different context as the current one, may be a reason for many to vote for the ‘Mandela Party’ as one elder referred to ANC, but realistically, the conditions of the international loans may make these promises impossible to fulfil. On the other hand the trading relationship with China has brought in some other considerations; one visible of these was not letting Dalai Lama to South Africa.

Many critics of South Africa fail to acknowledge these factors and limitations that the country’s history and system has created. They have also, perhaps conveniently, forgotten, that regardless of handful Black tycoons, the business capital is largely in the same hands as it has been for long and this, financial power, is not lesser to the political power. As a young and slowly healing democracy South Africa will eventually find a space where the future will be more important than the past, but for now, the vote is determined by the past probably for all the parties.

Note: this piece was originally written for my university as an answer to a question. I have modified it a bit to fit here.

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