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Democracy, Age 10
Zaid Hassan, 15 Apr 04

queue.jpgTen years into South African’s experiment with democracy, votes are still being counted for the April 14 elections. As predicted, the African National Congress has consolidated power and once again swept the polls clean in a lanslide victory claiming over 69% of the vote.

I find myself in Johannesburg. The pathos of South African history finds expression in the most sublime, inspiring and worldchanging of civil projects. Juxtaposed against this civic energy is a curious ambivalence to democratic politics. The run up to the elections feels like a remarkably mundane and low-key affair. Driven by this uneasiness, I set out, on the eve of the elections, on a mission to untangle the relationship between South Africa’s vast appetite for change and it’s seeming indifference to the drama of state politics.

The Troyeville house that I work from when in Johannesburg is patrolled by Bobby, a big, brown rotweiler. The only thing (other than food) that arouses Bobby from his usual languid stupor is an unknown black person entering the grounds. Then his gentleness melts away and his rotweiler genes ignite in a series of terrifying snarls that most black visitors feel is the last sound they’ll ever hear. Bobby is a South African rotweiler and has either been trained, or somehow learnt, that his job is to scare black people. His lumbering presence around the house is a constant reminder of how deep Apartheid’s roots really go.

Despite such karmic disturbances, I’m attracted to South Africa because of the dynamism and creativity of its people. I find it interesting that so many of the South Africans I meet and speak to, while acknowledging the depth of their challenges, possess an almost autistic tenacity and single-mindedness about wanting to change things. This results in work as diverse and inspiring as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Constitution Hill and CIDA City Campus.

When I arrived in South Africa a few weeks ago I had imagined that the country would be ablaze in a state of celebration and campaign frenzy. It had been fourteen years since that extraordinary day when Nelson Mandela had walked out of his Robben Island prison and ten years since he had swept to power in South Africa’s first democratic elections, heralding a peaceful transition that few had expected. Instead of excitement, I found myself greeted by a strange coldness that seemed to surround ten years of democracy and more specifically the April 14 elections. No one I met was talking about it and few people seemed really interested -- at least in public.

somoho.JPGIt isn’t as if South Africans no longer care about the state of their nation -- far from it. The response from civil society to South Africa’s problems has been to create a culture of direct and creative intervention. This culture operates on very different cycles to that of formal politics. Things happen relatively fast. CIDA City Campus was founded, with virtually no resources, by Taddy Blatcher in 2000. Today it operates out of a skyscraper in downtown Johannesburg, has over sixteen hundred students and is graduating its first class this year. The impact of the Creative Inner Cities Initiative, founded in 2002, can been seen in inner city Johannesburg in the form of public art, street theatre and employment opportunities. The vision and dedication of one man over little more than three years caused the transformation of an ugly, garbage strewn, violent little hill in Soweto to the beautiful Soweto Mountain of Hope, with it’s theatre groups, landscaped organic gardens and children’s playground - which was visited by Kofi Annan in 2002. This response then is not about trickle down economics and slow moving policy discussions but something of a very different nature.

My radar blips the first night I get here. A friend of a friend, who looks like a banker, tells me that he “isn’t interested in politics…” As we talk it turns out that he runs a social investment fund, which I think is odd for someone who isn’t interested in politics. The next day in the office another South African friend, Anthony Prangely, who runs the Gumboots Foundation tells me that he’s looked at all the parties contesting the elections -- the trouble is that hardly anyone inspires him. Those that do inspire him, such as Patricia de Lille (ex-Pan African Congress firebrand who recently founded the Independent Democrats), don’t have the means to deliver on this inspiration. Such attitudes are widespread and puzzling enough for me to grab my notebook and light out across the quilt-work of Johannesburg in order to explore the nature of South African democracy.

One of my first stops is Soweto. Sitting at the end of the Old Potch Road, Soweto is a township on the outskirts of Johannesburg created by the Apartheid government back in the day to house black people far from any white population centres. It’s vast, sprawling and crazy with energy. It has high crime rates and even higher unemployment rates (approximately 65% of South Africa’s black population are unemployed). The poor transport links and generally bad infrastructure don’t help. Soweto houses over three million people today and is considered to be the political heartland of the ANC -- who came to power in 1994 and have been running government since.

One black teacher here tells me that 80% of her students are not registered to vote. Even though she’s encouraging them to do so, she doesn’t plan to vote herself. I discover that she’d been very active in the 1994 elections that bought Nelson Mandela and the ANC to power. I speak to a young film-maker at the Soweto Mountain of Hope. He tells me that he doesn’t really trust the election results because the ANC are bound to win and the opposition is so weak. He’s indignant that none of the other political parties bothered campaigning in Soweto -- even though it might be somewhat suicidal.

Back in the heart of downtown Johannesburg, a high-crime area, abandoned by most white people, is the Creative Inner Cities Initiative which runs classes on everything from sign-making and silk-screening to metal-working and writing. A young theatre student called Mocheko patiently explains the political situation to me. In 1994 the people were clearly demanding freedom and now that there is political and civic freedom people are now questioning the nature of the freedom they’ve gained. They’re asking “What is freedom?” He has just produced a community play exploring this question. The flavour of the question was more along the lines of ‘this is the freedom we’ve been promised? Something isn’t right.’ I hear the same question echoed by other young black people I speak to.

I feel that ten or fifteen years ago these very same people would have been heavily politicised and involved in the struggle. The coming of democracy has in some weird way de-politicised their activism. There seems to be a curious paradox here. My expectation was that the coming of democratic politics (and associated freedoms) would result in the unleashing of huge political energies. Instead what seems to have happened is that the initial flare of energy that engaged so many people in politics beyond the ballot box, and bought the ANC to power, has died down. As this energy dissipates, many who were previously political actors and many others, whom I at least expected to be political actors, are demonstrating a puzzling ambivalence to participation in democratic politics.

What’s going on here?

The political scene can be characterised by the image of a large, solid wildebeest sitting comfortably in the bush while being surrounded by a mangy bunch of predators. They can do little more than lob sods of mud at the barn-like sides of this animal. From time to time the wildebeest takes a lazy swat at the sods of mud and once in a while finds to energy to club down a particularly annoying party.

The wildebeest is the ANC, or rather the so called tripartite alliance, formed by Mandela’s party, the African National Congress (ANC), Coalition of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party (SACP), who together form the government of South Africa. They lead by a majority that is both deep and wide. It seems to be a foregone conclusion that the ANC is going to win the elections on April 14.

There seem to be four main reasons why the ANC is going to win these elections. First, many people think the ANC and President Mbeki are doing a good job -- even if they are screwing up on AIDS (an estimated 10% of South Africans have AIDS) and Zimbabwe and struggling with internal corruption. Second, the ANC is still seen as the party that liberated the blacks and in doing so saved South Africa from an Israel-Palestine style conflict. Third, while there are a number of parties contesting the elections, no credible opposition has emerged in the last ten years. Finally the ANC have a door-to-door campaign machine that is unrivalled by any other party in the country.

That the ANC will be the party of government for many years to come seems to be an undisputed and well understood fact here.

In pondering South Africa’s civic energy it dawns on me that a distinction needs to be made when using a phrase like ‘political apathy’ -- I'm starting to doubt that it exists in the way we understand it in the West. People turn out at the ballot box and people certainly have expectations from the State but they don't seem to want to have much to do with being a part of it beyond that. Rather than apathy, there seems to be a culture of silence around the elections.

It seems clear that the civic players I met, spoke to and am aware of are not apathetic in any sense of the word. Rather there are two cultures at work here, the culture of civil society and the culture of democratic politics. The tectonic nature of the fault-line between these two cultures was revealed to me through a story I heard about another teacher. It goes like this.

There’s a dynamic black woman, we’ll call her Busi, who runs a pre-school in Alexandria, the second largest township in Johannesburg. The Democratic Alliance (the official opposition) invite her to stand as their councilor for the township. She refuses. Her refusal is surprising because she’s highly critical of the ANC. She explains her refusal as follows. Even though she feels betrayed by the ANC, even though she feels a deep sense of disillusionment with the ANC, she still loves them. In addition to her love for the ANC, she explains that if she entered politics and took up a position with either party, she’ll lose some of her standing and position within the community -- she’d be labeled a partisan. Such labeling will almost certainly have repercussions on her work as an activist and on her ability to get things done. She decides not to stand.

One way of making sense of Busi’s story is through the idea of Ubuntu, an idea held dear to many Africans, which can be defined as ‘I am who I am because of others.’ Ubantu as an aspiration and ideal means, in effect, that self is defined through harmony and unity in community and not through opposition with others. It’s a particular attitude which was strengthened during the Apartheid years in black African communities because there was a common enemy to fight against. In the years leading up to the end of Apartheid and post-Apartheid the main forces to threaten the unity of black communities has been party politics. Party politics is shifting African notions of Ubuntu in favour of more atomistic models that necessarily come about with the disintegration of traditional communities and communal values. I can't help but notice Independent Election Commission posters on the roads reminding people that their vote is secret and they don't have to reveal who they voted for.

In the years leading up to his death in 1977, the charismatic activist Steve Biko attempted to create, through SASO (South African Students Organisation), an alternative political force to the ANC. While many would credit the collapse of SASO’s political power to Biko’s death at the hands of the Apartheid government, it’s a fact that the ANC fought a running battle against Biko’s supporters which split black communities, especially in Soweto. Today in KwaZuluNatal (KZN) the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and the ANC have split communities in a similar way. Political divisions resulted in some particularly violent battles which peaked during the 1994 elections sparking fears of civil war. While this has died down now, the only reported violence leading up to the current elections occurred in KZN in clashes between the ANC and IFP.

Party politics fits badly with Ubuntu. Massive support for the ANC then reflects Ubuntu, while divisive, knife edge voting does not -- as is evident in KZN.

The deeper causes of for both civic dynamism and for political ambivalence are pretty much the same -- a deep love of community. This is reflected, not so much in people’s words, but in their actions. In a sense, modern democratic politics is threatening the notion of African community.

The African intelligentsia is well aware that democracy cannot be exported whole and complete from the West, that an African democracy must be forged from the heat and dust and pain of Africa. The question of how to do this rages on with no clear answers in sight. I take comfort from the fact that it’s early days yet. The democracies of Europe and the USA were far from stable in their early days -- compared to how they were doing ten years in, South Africa is doing well and is extremely stable.

I realise that while in the West our notions of true community are nothing more than the stuff of nostalgia, in much of Africa community still defines self -- even if it is under attack from modernity. I realise that in such a situation my understanding of what constitutes political apathy is out of whack. I realise that my notions of freedom are out of whack. My Hunter S Thompson like indignation around politics is out of whack. As South Africans head home from the polls and I head home to London, I’m reminded of Paul Theroux’s comment that “Being in Africa was like being on a dark star.”

Post-Election Update

-- 89 percent of registered voters voted in 1999 against 76,7 percent this year, so it's dropped by 12 percent
-- Only about 56 percent of the total eligible voters voted (38 percent of total eligible voters in support of ANC)
-- 62 percent of colored and Indian voters registered
-- 48 percent of voters under 25 are estimated to have registered (no stats are
available on how many of them voted)

-- "The lower turnout showed a notably significant degree of unhappiness at the way politicans have behaved."
-- "...while black voters were willing to consider alternatives, they do not believe there are viable opposition parties."
-- "...alienation definitely contributed to the significantly lower turnout of colored and Indian voters"
-- "...the second most popular vote was therefore not for the DA, but a 'no vote'. It indicates serious dissatisfaction and that many people did that consciously as a way of protest."

Source: 18 April, 2004 Sunday Independent, by Christelle Terreblanche. (Note that Terreblanche is a fierce critic of the current government.)

[Thanks to Mille, Anthony, Sean, Donovon, Paul and everyone else who helped me along the way.]

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Thanks for that article.

I can't help but think about how American culture is sort of an anti-Ubuntu, where it's absolutely *expected* that politics will drive a wedge clear through the community, leaving behind a ravaged, gaping hole.

Posted by: Paul on 15 Apr 04

I like it. I was a little disappointed that my point that the constraints of playing the global capitalist game are key to holding the ANC in power got edited away, as I still think that's important. People feel good about the strong Rand. However, in hindsight I think the story that you told about ubuntu versus party politics is a much more interesting one. I found myself having that conversation today after the elections, in the context of african attitudes towards democracy and privacy...

Posted by: sean on 15 Apr 04



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