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Absolutely no clue about democracy
Peter Van der Merwe
Published: 12-MAY-06

It’s been a tough month in South Africa for your average columnist looking for new grist for his mill. Sure, there was the temporary excitement of the local government elections, but the result was yawningly obvious.

As local cartoonist Zapiro suggested recently, the ruling ANC should change its name from the African National Congress to Absolutely No Contest.

The party’s crushing win, which guaranteed it control of practically every town and city in the country except Cape Town, came in spite of pre-election mutterings about the people punishing the ANC for a lack of service delivery. Fat chance. They didn’t even stay away from the polls, with some 45 percent of people making their cross.

This is well above the international average for local elections, which dents suggestions of voter apathy by some analysts.

Still, one can’t help feeling that for millions of people who have only had the vote for the past 10 years, they should have made more of an effort. There are hordes of people right on South Africa’s doorstep who would give their eyeteeth to be part of a free and fair election.

What was more worrying was the practically non-existent voter turnout in the troubled town of Khutsong, which has been torn apart by rioters protesting government’s plans to shift the municipality from the country’s major province of Gauteng to the more agricultural North-West province.

Twice before the elections, the government dispatched ANC national chairperson Mosioua Lekota to the area to pour oil on troubled waters. Twice he was sent packing by enraged community members, who stoned his departing car for good measure to underline their anger.

The Khutsong issue has certainly thrown into stark relief the ANC’s changing views on what democracy is. If the overwhelming majority of people in an area want to stay where they are, surely it is government’s job to heed their wishes? Whatever happened to “government by the people, of the people, for the people”?

Instead, the bumptious Lekota tried to tell anyone who would listen that democracy was all about respecting the unilateral decisions made by some ridiculous committee perched on an ivory tower somewhere in Cape Town or Pretoria. No, he said, there was absolutely no consultation. The people should just do as they are told.

Well, Mr Lekota, do the people have news for you. That’s not democracy. And for him to pretend anything else simply underlines the yawning chasm between the ANC elite, who whiz along the country’s highways in cavalcades of luxury vehicles, and the people who put them in power, but still live in tin shacks and choke on wood smoke every day.

ANC secretary general, Kgalema Motlanthe, is similarly unencumbered by knowledge of what makes a good democratic process. Only 220 out of more than 29 000 people in Khutsong cast their votes, making a mockery of any leadership that should be installed in the area – but Mr Motlanthe self-righteously proclaimed that people “had made their democratic choice not to vote, and the outcome could not be questioned.” And politicians wonder why many people regard them somewhere on the same level as pond scum.

Which leads us neatly to the issue of the trial of deputy president Jacob Zuma, who is facing of charges of rape in the Johannesburg High Court as we speak.

Many of Zuma’s supporters see the charges as part of an ongoing plot to get rid of him, but their behaviour outside the court has raised many questions about just how women’s rights are perceived in this country.

Burning likenesses of Zuma’s accuser, and shouting obscenities and insults at her, is hardly a sign of an evolving country which prizes basic human rights. Zuma has every right to a fair trial, but his glaring lack of effort to quell these repulsive protests casts doubt as to the stature of the man. Perhaps it’s time for South Africa’s top political figures to take a refresher course in leadership.

This column was first published in Business in Africa Magazine, April 2006. To subscribe click here

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