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Don’t hold your breath for change
Peter van der Merwe
Posted Wed, 05 Apr 2006

The old maxim that there are only two certainties in life – death and taxes – is about to be proven wrong again in South Africa’s forthcoming local government elections. Fact is, you don’t have to possess a crystal ball to be absolutely certain about two things: growing voter apathy and another thunderous victory for the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

The victory will come in spite of internal strife within the ANC over a range of issues, ranging from the fate of embattled former deputy president Jacob Zuma to the party’s list of candidates for the poll, which has left numerous stalwarts out in the cold by enforcing 50-50 gender parity.

By the time you read this, all that will be left is minor horse-trading as the smaller parties mill about trying to establish loose alliances with either the ANC or the main opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA).

That’s the nature of politics. What is of more concern is the steadily dwindling numbers of people going to the polls in South Africa as they become increasingly disenchanted with a political system that doesn’t seem to give a hoot for the people it is supposed to serve. That’s a sign of a struggling democracy, but if there are major red warning lights flashing in President Thabo Mbeki’s office, he is giving an excellent imitation of someone who couldn’t be bothered.

Granted, local government elections aren’t half as much fun as their big brother, national elections. They just don’t have the same drama. After all, it’s tough to get as worked up about street lights and refuse collections as it is about free education and basic living grants.

But the reasons why people will choose to stay away in these polls should be instructive to a government that purports to create a better life for all.

The main cause of voter apathy will surely be the slow pace of service delivery to South Africa’s poorer communities, who have taken to the streets of townships across the country in recent months to vent their spleen. They have been hearing ANC promises since the famous 1996 elections, and are now heartily sick and tired of being no better off than they were ten years ago.

There is no doubt that the government has done a great deal in its 10 years in power, but unemployment levels remain high, corruption frequently appears to go unpunished and services are taking a lot longer to roll out than was ever imagined.

It also doesn’t help the ANC’s image that current deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ncguka takes friends and family to Dubai at the taxpayer’s expense, and her spokesman breezily dismisses the ZAR700 000 cost of the junket as “a drop in the ocean”. At best, it shows a government that is out of touch with the people. At worst, she may as well have trailed a banner saying “Let them eat cake.”

The government may also have underestimated just how many people are unhappy with its controversial floor-crossing legislation, which effectively legalises electoral fraud by allowing elected officials to ignore the mandate given them by the voters. It won’t play a major role in this election, but it could make people think twice about whom they give their precious vote to this time around.

This election features the unusual sight of numerous disenchanted ANC councillors standing as independents after finding themselves out in the cold, as it were. Many of them are victims of the ANC’s determination to have women as at least half of its electoral candidates – a worthy cause, but one that should have been implemented with a touch more sensitivity.

Not that any of this will make an iota of difference to the poll result. The people can be as unhappy as they like, but they will either grudgingly make their mark for the ANC anyway, or stay away in their droves.

Political analyst, Prof John Daniels, summed it up aptly: “When people are upset with their party, they don’t tend to leave the party. They simply fold their arms and do not vote. By not voting they feel that they are making a positive statement of resistance which is as effective as voting for another party.”

Whether that makes any difference to the final outcome remains to be seen. My prediction? Business as usual after March 1. Whatever the DA likes to believe.

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