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JOHANNESBURG — Judging by a significant drop in voter turnout in the highly contested recent local government vote in the Free State’s Mestimaholo, there’s cause for concern that current South African political parties simply aren’t motivating enough people to exercise their democratic rights. All parties are proving boring and dull to voters. A paradigm is needed. Could Makhozi Khoza’s new formation prove to be the game changer? – Gareth van Zyl
By Graham Sell*
Between August 2016 and November 2017, an additional 9% of the registered electorate stopped voting. You may find it unbelievable, but this is exactly what happened in Metsimaholo Municipality’s November 2017 by-elections. Remember that these encompassed the entire municipality, not just one or two Wards, effectively representing a complete rerun of the August 2016 Local Government election. Apples with apples comparisons are therefore appropriate and very revealing.
I believe these results can also be viewed as a microcosm of the national electorate’s disposition because as explained below, if any municipality should have expected a higher turnout than before, it is Metsimaholo.
Without going into too much detail – in 2016 there was no outright winner in the Free State municipality of Metsimaholo, but the DA managed to cobble together a 23 vs 19 coalition “majority” enabling it to take control, albeit for less than 12 months. Internal squabbling saw the coalition unsurprisingly fall apart and having failed to pass the 2017/18 municipal budget, the council was necessarily dissolved. Free State Provincial Government appointed an administrator to oversee operations until by-elections could be held to re-constitute a political order for the municipality. In these circumstance, shouldn’t we expect more people to turn out to ensure a majority for the party of their choice, thereby helping to alter the previous disastrous outcome?
The reality of these by-elections is that registered voter turnout dropped from 56% in 2016 to 47% in 2017 making the non-voting population the largest constituency at 53% of registered voters. Significantly, as you will see later, the number of voters casting ballots in each of the two elections dropped by a massive 18.5%.
Apples with Apples Analyses
Much has been made of the ANC’s “collapse”, where results superficially suggested an almost 35% drop in support – but what needs to be factored into this equation is that the SACP stood in these by-elections under their own banner for the first time, and not as an ANC alliance supporter. If, for apples with apples comparison, we add the 2017 SACP votes and ANC votes together, the seats won remains the same and in the same configuration. The DA came out worse off with 1 PR seat less (let that sink in for a while), and the EFF remained static:
- 2016 ANC/SACP alliance: 16 Ward and 3 PR = 19 seats
- 2017 ANC: 16 Ward and 0 PR + SACP : 3 PR = 19 seats
- 2016 DA: 5 Ward and 7 PR = 12 seats/2017: 5 Ward and 6 PR = 11 seats
- 2016/17 EFF: 8 PR seats
A classic example of the adage the more things change, the more they stay the same except for the DA?
Most significantly, both the DA and EFF also received far fewer votes in 2017 than in 2016, so any talk of “improvement” in their performance is disingenuous. They both fared worse than before except perhaps in comparison to each other, which is really no recommendation.
Far from solving the 2016 problem, these by-election results have again produced a most unfavourable outcome, so it is back to the pain of coalition politics for Metsimaholo residents. They have my profound sympathy, particularly as it will require some very strange and fundamentally incompatible bedfellows to take control.
Trying to predict who is going to do what, with whom, and for how much in the Mesimaholo coalition stakes remains a Chinese puzzle until we know the outcome of the ANC’s December National Convention leadership elections. In my opinion, if Ramaphosa wins the leadership race, the Tripartite Alliance of the ANC/SACP/Cosatu will remain intact, but if Dlamini-Zuma wins I believe that at least the SACP and Cosatu will split completely from the ANC, if not also Ramaphosa and his supporters.
As fluid as the situation is, bear with me for a moment while I speculate on the fate of Metsimaholo’s coalition circus. If the ANC/SACP alliance holds together they will have 19 of the 42 available seats, and if the DA/EFF co-operative alliance holds together they will also have 19 of the 42 available seats. Under these conditions, Metsimaholo citizens will again be at the mercy of 4 minority parties that hold 1 proportional seat each, one being awarded to a party that attracted only 405 voters, or less than 0.48% of all registered voters (just saying) – so if you thought we had rid ourselves of minority governance, think again. In this scenario, rational thinking says go straight back into administration and forget the unworkable coalition nonsense.
If the ANC alliance fails because of a Dlamini-Zuma victory in December, an alternative scenario for Metsimaholo is that the DA, EFF and SACP form a coalition that will provide them with a majority of 22 of the 42 available seats. As I already believe that DA/EFF coalitions are a marriage made in hell, adding the SACP to this poisonous cocktail really would mean the lunatics have taken over the asylum.
In my opinion, the real message from Metsimaholo is that too many people are choosing not to vote because they have lost faith in the existing party-centric political dispensation, and have come to believe that none of the existing parties are able to deliver their promised “better life for all”. The failure of politicians to entice voters back to the ballot box should send a clear message to their parties that they are on the wrong track, and are missing the point that no matter who is in control, there are too many of them eating our lunch, and not enough them putting food on our table.
One of the party leaders must explain why a voter who can’t afford an airline ticket should be concerned with the plight of SAA? Or why an indigent household which receives free electricity and water should be concerned about the evident corruption at Eskom and the Department of Water Affairs? Party leaders grandstanding on the so-called “big” issues are missing the biggest issue of all, which is that fewer and fewer people at grassroots level care about, or believe in, anything they say. They are talking to the wrong people about the wrong things.
Scarily, if this downward slide in voter turnout continues into 2019, we are in danger of having a National Government not elected by the will of the majority, but elected by a mobilised minority. We cannot allow this to happen, so ways must be found to reawaken public enthusiasm for the ballot box.
I have written before that I think it will take a new political party to break the mould of traditional South African politics. A party that will commit to returning power to the electorate and deliver practical and pragmatic policies defined at a local level, not the present “one size fits all” centralised policies of the established parties.
Makhozi Khoza, leading the new ADeC party, is best positioned to exploit the paradigm shift needed to change our political landscape, but to do this she must shed the mantle of a traditional South African politician, which means she must stop criticising what others have done or cannot do and focus on what can be done, and how to do it. She mustn’t tell us about how she will fix National problems at a National level, or how corrupt the ANC is, or how extreme the EFF is, she must tell us how she will use National power to change people’s lives at a local level. It would also not hurt her to look at how Emmanuel Macron convinced France to trust his 14 months old party.
If a new party cannot live up to the challenge, then we can only hope that Cyril Ramaphosa wins the December ANC leadership election, dropkicks JZ into touch at the first opportunity, and proceeds to unravel the tangled web of the Captured State that we live in.
A final footnote to this sad tale is that PR seat calculations reveal the ANC were only entitled to 14 seats. This calls into question the veracity of Demarcation Board decisions, and dictates that they revisit the demarcation of Metsimaholo with a degree of urgency to avoid any accusations of gerrymandering.
- Graham Sell is author of the anti-PR blog Disconnected Democracy.
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