13 June 2019

South Africa: Greater Electoral Choice and the State of Democracy

opinion

Recent higher levels of electoral choice might reflect deeper trends that could harm South Africa's democracy in future.

Now almost exactly a month after national elections were held, members of parliament have been safely sworn in and national celebrations over the holding of, yet another, peaceful democratic election have abated. With their memory still fresh in the popular mind and before the work of the sixth sitting of the National Assembly begins in earnest, now might also be the ideal time to reflect upon what these elections reveal about the state of our relatively young (25 years old) democracy.

A good place to start might be by comparing the political choices voters were faced with during this election and the historic 1994 elections. The most immediate difference between then and now is the considerable choice, which voters now enjoy, in terms of the number of political parties that they could vote for at least. Voters could choose between 48 political parties in this election. In contrast, less than half as many political parties (19) contested the country's first democratic elections in 1994. Incidentally, only seven of these original parties contested the elections this year. Voters took advantage of greater availability of choice and elected a record 14 political parties to Parliament. Considering that only eight parties were elected to send representatives to Parliament in 1994, it is reasonable to presume that a greater diversity of views is now represented in Parliament.

At face value, the existence of greater choice for voters and the performance of smaller parties can be interpreted as a sign of a healthy and strong democratic system. On the other hand, they could easily be interpreted as a sign that all is not well in our democracy. More specifically, if it was inferred from these developments that a culture of democracy has failed to take root within the political parties that are at the heart of our representative democracy.

In support of this view, consider that many of the newer parties seem to have been established with the express purpose of advancing narrow special interests or, more often than not, built around particular personalities who frequently were expelled from larger parties or left to establish their 'own' parties following an ugly public fallout. Speculatively, this development could highlight that political parties are unable (or is that unwilling?) to accommodate bigger, divisive personalities who nevertheless command much influence within their parties or appease constituencies that may feel sidelined within their parties.

Part of this inability could be explained by prevailing social dynamics which are apparent in other aspects of South African society. For instance, perhaps it reflects that the same factors that influence South Africa's social media landscape are at play. It is somewhat ironic that, even though South Africans are connecting in ever-increasing numbers, the manner in which we select into the groups of people with whom we exchange views means that South African social media users end up effectively engaging with like-minded people on 'black twitter' or 'white twitter'. Groups thus serve as echo chambers in which members rarely challenge each other's fundamental views. A consequence of being socialised in arenas where snappy comebacks and online validation by one's followers substitute for reflection and genuine dialogue is that South Africans, young people especially, might be having their outlooks shaped in settings which tend to confirm their biases and where conformity is the norm.

Or perhaps this trend reflects the triumph of a winner take all individualistic outlook, which is so prevalent in our economic interactions over a more communitarian approach to internal party politics. By characterising politics as a zero-sum game where the winners take all, few of those who hold dissenting views from the majority in their party are likely to hold out hope for securing compromises which veer even slightly from the dominant position.

Consequently, there is little that would induce them to stay in parties where they believe chances of their views being accommodated are slim and every incentive to start their own political parties or foreswear party politics altogether. Increasingly it seems, South Africans are exercising this latter option. In fact, the biggest constituency after the ruling African National Congress is represented by citizens who chose not to vote. In other words, the proportion of citizens that believe that the record number of political parties vying for their vote did not cater for their special interest.

Whatever the underlying socio-political reasons therefore, the net result is less diversity of views within parties and the creation of more ideologically pure spaces in which dissent is not tolerated. Is it any wonder then that citizens' voting patterns are beginning to reflect a narrower short-term perspective where parties are perceived to serve boutique interests and members are not bound by some over-arching ideological framework?

Tentatively, such spaces are unlikely to be conducive to the cultivation of values like tolerance or respect that are foundational values in any democracy. Neither do they bode well for the grooming of leaders who are equipped with the diplomatic nous to navigate differences in a diverse society. Worryingly, these trends are likely to set the tone for more division and fuel the acrimony that already poisons the political environment in our racially fractious society.

Feelings of political frustration stoked by the inability to have one's views heard, or concerns addressed in one's political home could lead people to eschew dialogue and spurn consensus in favour of like-mindedness. This could, in turn, so easily translate into greater racial intolerance in society in general and spur the formation of racial laagers as citizens seek solace in racial familiarity. To some extent this is already happening, as can be seen in the increased volume of racialist rhetoric employed by parties on the left and the right which, although claiming to constitute efforts to shed light on a specific agenda, seem to have quickly evolved into promoting what appears to be racially exclusivist agendas.

Seen from this perspective, democracy in South Africa might not be in as good shape as at first appears when looking at the wide choice available to voters. Under these circumstances, it is incumbent upon political parties, party leaders and ordinary party members alike who genuinely desire to see democracy strengthened more than seeing their party win, to engage in greater introspection and work to democratise their internal structures lest these spaces create conditions that will fracture society even further in future.

Anything less is an abrogation of their responsibility and makes a mockery of the democracy, which South Africans of diverse political persuasions fought so hard and so long to secure then and undermines the desire for a just, equitable and racially harmonious South Africa which unites all South Africans of goodwill now.

* Doctor Gerard Boyce is a senior lecturer in the School of Built Environment and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Howard College), South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.

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