Manifestoes galore: Voters demand substance over spectacle – Solly Moeng

In the vibrant lead-up to South Africa’s 2024 elections, Solly Moeng highlights a crucial voter dilemma: should citizens be swayed by flashy promises or seek alignment with their own values? Amid a cacophony of manifestos and political theatrics, Moeng urges voters to scrutinise beyond rhetoric and consider their true desires. With parties spanning from left to right, each vying for attention, Moeng emphasises the need for informed decision-making over superficial appeals. As the nation stands at a crossroads, Moeng’s call for voter empowerment resonates, urging South Africans to prioritise substance over spectacle in shaping their country’s future.

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By Solly Moeng

It’s a colourful, yet cacophonous, political space

As the number of South African governing party and presidential wannabees continue to crowd the ever-shortening route to the much-anticipated 2024 general elections, the electorate is spoiled for choice in terms of which party or individual to vote for. Long manifestoes are being launched at a staggering rate in an era of short attention spans, low literacy levels, and insatiable appetite for immediate gratification. 

Politically speaking, and despite the mess the country’s vital institutions and public infrastructure have been plunged into through years of kakistocratic reign by the ANC, form is still more important than content for far too many voters. Oratory and dancing skills, as well as emotional appeals to rally people around racial victimhood using electorally lucrative historic pain, remain better vote winners than unpacking material facts of contemporary lived experience.    

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Without having taken the time to delve into the details of the plethora of manifestoes available online, most people have either already made up their minds based on past political adherence and impressions already made about the different party leaders, known and little known. Many will also rely on what they see and read in their preferred media platforms and hear from friends and family. Few, very few, will take the time to read the documents. They’re often too long and filled with the type of jargon many ordinary voters cannot deal with. And they have no time to do so, given their ever-increasing daily battles for survival to ensure that they and their loved ones are fed before they go to bed. The false sense of comfort provided by echo chambers will inform voter behaviour. 

Let’s lump them up

First from Centre to Left 

As the electoral field gets crowded, those who are still undecided might want to return to the basics of helicopter-view political analysis as a start and look at the field by drawing a vertical line in the centre, and then positioning the different parties – at least the ones they’re curious about – vis-Ă -vis this centre. 

Moving progressively from the centre along the continuum of the left flank, all the way to the extreme end of it, one will find names – in terms of party leaders – such as Mmusi Maimane, Herman Mashaba, Roger Jardine, Songezo Zibi, Patricia De Lille, and Velenkosini Hlabisa, etc., in the first half of it. After crossing over to the second half of this left flank, before heading further towards its extreme left, one will progressively encounter names such as Cyril Ramaphosa (the incumbent), Bantu Holomisa (the perennial), Julius Malema, Jacob Zuma (the returning rubble rouser), Duduzane Zuma (the son of the returning rubble rouser), Ace Magashule, Carl Niehaus, and Solly Maphaila. Once rooted in the immediate centre left in the early years of South Africa’s democracy, Ramaphosa’s party has gradually shifted further to the left, particularly following the formation of Mosioua Lekota’s COPE and Malema’ EFF, to protect its youth flank that was once held by a robust ANC Youth League that has since become a shadow of itself.

Maphaila leads the South African Communist Party, the perpetual leech formation that still dreams of the Soviet era but owes its entire existence on the electoral fortunes of Ramaphosa’s party. Holding his hand is one Zingiswa Losi (Cosatu President) whose usefulness is to pretend to be angry at Ramaphosa’s party in-between elections while she mobilises affiliated unionised workers without fail, in its favour, ahead of each election. Theirs has proven over time to be a finely toxic Tripartite Alliance with a knee pressed down hard on South Africa’s democracy, stifling any chance of it realising its true potential in an increasingly competitive and fragmented world where smart, fact based, reasoning, rather than misplaced, archaic, emotional ties, must determine political positioning.

This left-leaning stretch also contains several other relatively recent arrivals in parties such as the ATM, Al Jama-ah, Patriotic Alliance, Good Party, etc. It is mostly a basket of the politically and ethically wounded who are out to get their slice of the political pie at all costs, including lying with the devil.   

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Then from Centre to Right

A similar, progressive, move from the political centre along the continuum of right flank will find that it is less crowded than the left flank. Parties on this side of the political divided are generally assumed to be White-led and old-style conservatives. The move starts with John Steenhuisen (Leader of the official opposition DA), which can be argued to be struggling to make careful moves to the centre-left without upsetting what remains of its traditional liberal supporters, most of whom remain rooted in the centre-right. Under his predecessor, Mmusi Maimane, Steenhuisen’s party almost made a bold move further to its traditional left, ahead of the last general elections, in a move to make itself more appealing to the back majority voters whose support it would need to stand any chance of replacing Ramaphosa’s party, the incumbent (mis)governing lot. 

It was a bold, yet necessary gamble that, to win, would require an inevitable shedding of some hardcore traditional voters who were happy to see the party remain a vocal opposition in defence of traditional liberal values. Such supporters did not care about their party moving into the national governing space, at least not at the expense of what brought them to it in the first place, Thatcherite liberalism. Some analysts would argue that Maimane might have moved too fast towards the left without taking many of the party’s traditional supporters and funders into his confidence and along with him. They reacted by ditching his party for the next one to their right, Pieter Groenewald’s Freedom Front Plus. 

Many observers described traditional members of Steenhuisen’s party, who are mostly White, as a bunch of racists who were only interested in preserving historic white privileges from feared black incursion. It is possible, of course, that a deeper analysis is likely to unearth a more complex motivation. But in South Africa, with its long history of institutionalised racism, an explanation that stops at ascribing racism to complex human behaviour is easily favoured. So, Maimane lost the gamble. He did not go far enough in attracting sizeable black voter support and, in what some label as his political overzealousness – some described him as “Obama-light” – he went too far in leaving traditional party supporters behind. It was a hard political balancing act.           

As things stand, Steenhuisen’s party remains the guardian of the centre-right of South Africa’s colourful political landscape. Going by its post Maimane’s political rhetoric – having licked its 2019 wounds – it has come to accept that it can only enter the national governing space in partnership with smaller parties, most of whom are rooted on the immediate left of the centre, where it cannot go without losing more of its traditional base. To the immediate right of Steenhuisen is Pieter Groenwald, whose party’s raison d’être is to defend Afrikaans traditional values in a thriving South African democracy.     

To win votes, parties in the immediate centre left and right are likely to coalesce together, while those to the far left are also likely to do the same. Being a very complex country, South Africa might be better governed from the immediate left of the centre, where compromise might be easier to reach.   

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