There Is A Hole In Our Politics Which Citizen Action Could Fill

As this country’s most recent elections showed, there is a huge hole in the centre of party politics which has widened even further the gap between the people and those they elect. There is not much citizens can do about this – except to use the opportunities it presents.


By: Professor Steven Friedman
08 March 2022
Theme: Participatory Democracy

Photo supplied by Shutterstock

Last November, of course, was an historic election since the governing African National Congress (ANC) dropped below 50% nation-wide for the first time. The fact that these were local rather than national polls does not reduce the importance of this result. But the effect was not to increase the power and the choices of the people – on the contrary, many cities are now governed by executive mayors who represent 8%-10% of the adult population and rickety coalitions in which parties are far more interested in which positions they get than the needs of the people who sent them to councils.

A major reason for this is the hole – the absence of a party for which disillusioned former ANC supporters can vote. As the ANC vote dropped sharply, so did voter turnout – this showed that most ANC voters who withheld their support did not choose another party: they stayed away because they were not willing to support another party. To illustrate that the result was not an endorsement of any other party, the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA), lost more support (measured as a percentage of their previous vote) than the ANC. And so, despite its worst result ever, the ANC won double the DA’s vote share and around four times that of the third biggest party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which failed to make much progress despite widespread voter unhappiness with the ANC.

In theory, a drop in support for a long-standing governing party – or that party’s defeat at the polls – renews party politics and empowers voters. But here, the absence of a credible contender for majority support means one of two things, neither of them favourable to citizens: either the ANC, because it is closer to 50%, persuades a few small parties to govern with it or the DA persuades many small parties to do this, even if, at times, the coalition lacks a majority and so is dependent on the votes of the EFF, which remains out of government.

These are not alliances of principle: the smaller parties want seats in the municipal government – and in some cases chairs of tender committees – and, with rare exceptions, are happy to let the largest party set the agenda for government; the EFF has so far supported DA administrations despite insisting that it rejects much of their policy. In theory, the cities are governed by a majority of councillors since the mayor can assemble a majority for decisions. In practice, a clutch of smaller parties is propping up a bigger one without telling it how it should govern.

None of this would happen if there was a credible alternative to the ANC, able to convince voters that it is a government in waiting: in that case, the two largest parties would compete fiercely to convince voters that they were better able to govern. That is nowhere in sight. There are specific holes in party politics in the sense that there are particular groups of voters who feel they are unrepresented. No party has won the backing of most middle-class black voters and there is no left party which challenges poverty and inequality. But these absences are symptoms of the wider problem, the lack of alternatives to the ANC.

There is nothing voters can do to change this. Forming political parties capable of winning substantial support requires resources and organisation which citizens don’t have. So, forming a new party with the capacity to challenge for government is beyond the reach of citizens. This means that this party will have to emerge from the current parties, most likely through another split in the ANC.

Until that happens, citizens have options – but they seem reluctant to use them. A reality in which whoever governs has to rely on the support of many small parties, is ripe for citizen influence because there is not only one source of decision-making: if most parties want something and the governing party does not, then whoever governs cannot get their way. If citizens press the council to change whatever it is doing, there is a much greater chance that they will be heard even if the governing party does not want to hear them.

The fact that many parties are simply there to get what they can makes this more difficult because they may ignore calls for change. But we don’t know how this will play out since no-one has tried to use the fact that no party has a majority to mobilise a majority in their support: if campaigning is effective, parties might find that it is their interests to listen. Up until now, however, activists and citizens’ groups have reacted much the same as the parties do, treating a government with minority support as though it held a two-thirds majority.

So far, the effect of the hole has been felt only in local government. But there is no reason why it should remain contained there. The local government results reflected a national trend – the 2024 national results might be similar to those in last year’s local ballot. In theory, it should be more difficult for citizens to influence national or provincial decisions since more people are affected and so more support and organisation is needed. But the difference is an illusion. If we consider how effective the campaign for treatment for people living with HIV and AIDS was at a time when the government had a large majority, campaigns for social justice should be particularly effective if the country is governed by a fragile coalition.

The country needs a new party which could challenge for power. But, until it gets one, its people can turn its absence into new possibilities for influence.

Professor Steven Friedman is a Research Professor attached to the Humanities Faculty, University of Johannesburg. He specialises in the study of democracy and democratic citizenship. His most recent books are Prisoners of the Past: South African Democracy and the Legacy of Minority Rule and One Virus, Two Countries: What Covid-19 Tells Us About South Africa.

This is the first part of a series from My Vote Counts exploring what’s missing in South Africa’s politics, following the low voter turn out in the 2021 Local Government Elections. The series will look, specifically, at what the role of people, communities, workers and voters are in this context.

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