Thursday, June 2, 2011

The missing three million

A discussion of election results sounds like a pretty boring way to start a blog. But South African elections have a broader interest because South Africa is one of a very few countries that moved from a totalitarian system to a genuine democratic system practically overnight. And this was in the context of sanctions and internal demonstrations rather than the modern regime-change methods which seem to have become the fashion in the twenty-first century.

Judge Johann Kriegler
The first democratic election in 1994 was run by the Independent Electoral Commission under the chairmanship of Judge Johann Kriegler. As with so many things at the time, we were very fortunate to have a man of his vision and skills to manage the process. Since his retirement he has been assisting the United Nations in countries such as Kenya and most recently Afghanistan, no doubt in the hope that he can work similar magic there. In 1994 South Africa had no electoral roll and no electoral infrastructure. The Judge’s first move was to declare that any person who could prove to be a resident of South Africa would be entitled to vote. Apart from solving the logistics problem, it offered an inclusive approach to all people in the country. The turnout was dramatic – nearly 20 million, a number that has never been repeated despite the strong growth of the population over the last seventeen years. By the time the second election came around we had an electoral roll and elections were restricted to citizens. The turnout was 16 million.

People waiting to vote
I have always wondered whether the politicians in the National Party (the whites-only governing party of the day) really believed that they would win that first election. They had pontificated for years that the majority of black people in the country supported their policies of what they called “separate development” and that only a minority supported the trouble makers who wanted order overthrown in their own interests or in those of the Communists. It is well known that a lie repeated sufficiently often and sufficiently firmly by people in authority often becomes accepted as truth. I wonder if this applies to the speakers as well as to the listeners. In the event the only question was whether the African National Congress (ANC) would win the key two thirds of the vote which would enable them to change the Constitution. (They did not – then – and when they did eight years later, they left well enough alone.) The ANC won 63% of the seats and the National Party 21% with a variety of small parties sharing the rest. In the three subsequent national elections the ANC won 66%, 70%, and 66%. During this time the National Party disappeared altogether and the Democratic Alliance (DA) - the philosophical heirs of the Progressive Party with its lone representative fighting apartheid for many years - became the opposition. It had 17% after the last national election.

Helen Ziller. Leaderof the DA
This brings us to the elections held last month. In many ways the elections are not comparable because these were municipal not national elections. But they tell an interesting story. It is at the grassroots level that the ANC government has been least successful. It is the district councils that are supposed to orchestrate delivery of services like water, electricity, housing, schools - many of the key things that people care about. Some have been reasonably successful – given where they started – but in most the orchestra has been hopelessly out of tune. Yet in the May election the ANC won 64% of the vote. Surely no cause for concern here? And the DA won 22% largely by mopping up votes from smaller parties in decline or by amalgamating with them. Business as usual?

President Jacob Zuma. Waving goodbye?
Well not quite. Something like 3 million people who voted for the ANC in 2009 didn’t vote in this election. Nelson Mandela - Madiba - has such enormous status in South Africa that few ANC supporters can find it in their hearts to switch from his party to another while he’s still alive. What will happen after he dies?
Nelson Mandela 2011
Then the frustrations felt by the majority in South Africa – ranging from poor service delivery to the lack of jobs – may be felt at the ballot box. I hope that this leads to a viable opposition which can focus the government’s attention on the big issues (instead, for example, of having our president dodging bombs in Libya on a wild goose chase). Yet many of the problems are structural and go beyond the reach of the government in any case.  And demagogues within, and outside, the ANC are starting again to say things firmly as though they were true. There is a danger that they may be trying (inadvertently perhaps) to turn the democracy clock back to before 1994.

Michael - Thursday

PS I leave for Lisbon tomorrow.  Maybe I'll bump into Yrsa before she bumps into Tim!


  1. Michael, could some of the problem be avoided if Mandela acknowledged an heir-apparent, someone who would adopt his view? Mandela is deified in the west, his only misstep being Winnie. I imagine the country will have some bad days when he is no longer there. Will the ANC survive or will there be a new, forward looking country led by those who will finally vote for a leader outside the ANC?

    The picture of the people in line to vote is stunning. How does the commitment to democracy change so quickly? The numbers who vote in presidential elections in the US is so low it is an embarrassment. (As an aside, in the 2008 election students who lived off campus registered to vote in the districts in which they were living at the time of the vote. The Republicans maintain that the students should be required to vote in the districts that are their permanent addresses, especially if they are being supported by their parents. Perhaps not incorrectly, the Republicans believe that the students would not go to the trouble and inconvenience of getting ballots sent to them by their local voting commissions. There is no question that the majority of people under thirty who did vote, cast their ballots for Obama. The Republicans suggest that if students don't want to get an absentee ballot, they should go home to vote thereby disenfranchising a sizeable population between the ages of 18 and 22).

    There is heated rhetoric on the right and people on that side believe without question the information they get from Fox News. Even when it is proven that something is a lie. If Fox claims that red is purple, and says that this can be seen by any loyal and patriotic American, the lie lives on. Sean Hannity, briefly, was running his mouth off that Obama promised the leaders of Ireland that the US would take responsibility for the debt the Irish government has incurred. It wasn't picked up by the twenty-first century No-Nothing party because the Irish-American voting block to too small to swing a national election. Hannity must have known that but the Fox writers were having a bad night coming up with material for their in-house comedians.

    Obama finally waived his right to privacy by allowing the state of Hawaii to release the long form of his birth certificate. The right still insists that it has been doctored and they question why no one has seen pictures of Obama when he was in an Hawaiian kindergarten.
    Nothing will convince these people that Obama is a born-in-the-USA American because he can't change his skin color. Racists never die; they just vote the hate party-line.

    Oh, and Sarah is back with her bus tour to sites important to real Americans.


  2. Hi Beth,

    One of the things about Mandela is that after his term as president he stepped back and let the party (ANC) decide who should succeed him. In the 1999 election Thabo Mbeki led the party to victory. An educated thinker, his ascension was received enthusiastically but he had blind spots which led to awful mistakes. His AIDS denialism led to thousands of deaths. And he could never step back from his days in exile when Mugabe supported him. That personal debt led to tacit support for one of Africa’s most repressive regimes.

    Throughout his life - from a young activist to a ninety year old – Nelson Mandela has stuck to his principles whatever the personal cost. And that cost has been high indeed. This is remarkable for any person and extraordinary for a modern day leader. I can think of no other...


  3. I just saw the film Invictus, with Morgan Freeman incredibly playing Nelson Mandela. What a movie! It made me realize many of the enormous problems faced by the ANC government, which Mandela strategized about, and was brilliant at figuring out.

    But it really hit me that the former apartheid police and military forces were still entrenched, and the wealthy whites had the wealth of the country. Mandela was probably afraid of a civil war, led by the ultra-right, and he had to worry about how to develop the economy to benefit the majority of the people, who were and still are poor.

    It seems that many of the problems there today are deeply systemic and embedded, i.e., the economy. Millions need jobs and services of all kinds, the many who were denied these for years or paid pennies for working very hard. So funds must be prioritized.

    The ANC and their supporters made an earthshaking change in ridding the system of the neo-Nazis who ran it -- one of the most oppressive and racist governments to ever exist. In that, they succeeded in a great victory. But it didn't solve the economic inequality that still exist. It'll take a lot more changing to do that.

    But the people of South Africa deserve it, after all they had to endure. They deserve jobs, services, including health care, housing, water, and everything else, and an end to economic disparities.

    And, not surprisingly, within the U.S., jobs are still the big issue, and is not solved. Official unemployment went up to 9.1% last week. Wages are low for many, more part-time and temporary work that people can't survive on.