Frankly, my dear, the voters don't give a damn
By Peter van der Merwe
Published: 01-JAN-04

Next March or April, South Africans will go to the polls in the country's third completely democratic elections. Analysts will warble on about the ongoing miracle of the Rainbow Nation, politicians will lie through their teeth and the people ... well, they'll stay home and enjoy another day off.

You see, democracy is fast losing its allure for the people of South Africa. They flocked to the polls in droves in1994, hoping to herald a new beginning. Even in 1998, some 10 million people turned out to register for the voters' roll in advance of the elections. Last month, a whopping total of 300 000 people bothered to register for the 2004elections, out of a possible 9.5 million.

Not even the best efforts of President Mbeki and former president Nelson Mandela helped.

They toured the country trying to encourage unregistered voters to sign up at the polling stations, but to no avail. Glum election officials say it's part of a South African trend to leave things to the last minute, but not even they believe their own spin.

You can hardly blame the people, given the current state of politics in South Africa. Their president doesn't believe HIV causes AIDS. Their deputy president is mired in a corruption scandal, which continues to taint some of the country's most senior leaders. And while politicians bicker and squabble, unemployment queues grow and the poor get steadily more hopeless.

Granted, government did provide a glimmer of good news by belatedly announcing that it would set aside nearly ZAR14-bn (US$2.1-bn) to step up its fight against AIDS, particularly anti-retroviral drugs, over the next three years. It is too little, too late in a country, which has an infection rate of11%, but it is good news nonetheless.

Barely a week later, though, were the politicians up to their old tricks again. While millions of people around the country are living below the poverty line, the National Assembly's attention was focused on more important matters: namely, keeping their own portly posteriors in the butter for as long as possible.

Not even the best efforts of President Mbeki and former President Nelson Mandela helped.

Instead of voting to build more houses, create more jobs or improve the rickety health system, the House unanimously adopted a motion to give former members of parliament free air tickets, according to their years of service. The motion, moved by none other than ruling African National Congress (ANC) Chief Whip Nathi Nhleko, proposed that former MPs who had served a minimum of five consecutive years in parliament either before or after 1994 receive four single air tickets for every year of service up to a maximum of 15 years.

Perhaps the honorable members had forgotten why they are in parliament in the first place, or who put them there. What is truly unnerving is the alacrity with which these fat cats ladled the gravy. There was not a dissenting vote insight. And they wonder why the people view them with disdain.

The challenge for Mbeki and the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) is to convince the voters why they should even bother. The novelty of having the franchise is rapidly wearing thin, and people want results. Problem is it's not quite clear who can give them anything other than the usual posturing and pre-election candy floss.

The ruling African National Congress (ANC) has shown itself to be more concerned with the welfare of the emerging black elite. It's hard to say what the Democratic Alliance (DA), the main opposition party, stands for. The DA showed its ongoing commitment to hop into bed with anyone who asks by forming a partnership with the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), a party with a power base in KwaZulu-Natal and a blustering leader in Home Affairs Minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

It gets a little complicated from here. The DA recently dissolved an alliance with the New National Party (NNP), the former white ruling party that has never quite recovered from the shock of the new South Africa. The NNP is now in cahoots with the ANC. To top it all, the IFP announced its new relationship with the DA while still being part of a coalition with the ANC itself.

So which party stands for which principles? Are there any politicians who care about the plight of the people? Small wonder the voters are distinctly under whelmed. South Africa can expect a low turnout and a resounding ANC victory in next year's elections. Ultimately, they will have only themselves to blame - but they weren't left much of a choice.

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