PROF SETHULEGO MATEBESI | Clock ticks down to high-stakes elections

This is a new era of unprecedented opposition politics in the democratic space

23 May 2024 - 13:47
By Prof Sethulego Matebesi
Elections come and go, but personalities remain, says the writer.
Image: BLOOMBERG/WALDO SWIEGERS Elections come and go, but personalities remain, says the writer.

South Africa has entered a pivotal stage of the 2024 general elections. Aside from the usual drama surrounding electoral politicking and the twists and turns of new political parties and election campaigns, the forthcoming elections have yielded theatrical spectacles that have kept us intrigued over the past few months.

Depending on how far back you want to reflect your aesthetic lens, the drama began with the spike in the number of young people who registered as new voters. In light of this, political parties have run relentless campaigns targeting young voters.

There is a deeper issue here, however. Over the past three decades, voter apathy among young people in the country has been a knotty and vexing challenge that many scholars and policymakers have grappled with. What is provided  almost constantly ─ by the youth as a reason for the general apathy is a distrust of formal politics.

Here I contend that while young people may see voting as trivial, especially in comparison to their purported different and new forms of engaging with democracy, I grapple with understanding how they will be staking a claim in the future of a country they will inherit.

Prof Sethulego Matebesi from the University of the Free State.
Image: Supplied Prof Sethulego Matebesi from the University of the Free State.

There is one thing South Africans are certain of about the elections: the proliferation of new political parties. Insofar as this year’s elections are concerned, of the independent candidates and newly registered parties expected to contest the elections ─ including Build One SA (Bosa) and Rise Mzansi — it is the emergence of uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) Party, backed by former president Jacob Zuma, and former ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule’s African Congress for Transformation (ACT), that ushered in a new era of unprecedented opposition politics in the democratic space.

Both are populist leaders who were once at the helm of the ANC and have a complex and frosty relationship with the ANC and show open hostility towards President Cyril Ramaphosa. The MK Party’s radical socialist and conservative policies will ensure the state has almost everything. On the other hand, the ACT wants to disrupt the governing ANC and the status quo, especially in the Free State.

Elections come and go, but personalities remain. And with the MK Party and ACT being led by shrewd leaders with almost unconstrained power, it is unsurprising that the two parties are already facing internal strife.

Generally, a harsh reality for many new political parties will hit the hardest when they realise that beneath all the glamour and shine of election campaigns are many other variables besides political rhetoric that determine election outcomes. I reckon this is a lesson learnt by the two major opposition parties, the DA and EFF.

As the clock ticks down to these high-stakes elections, the DA decided to provide its own twist to the political theatre through its advertisement featuring the burning of the South African flagThe DA’s provocative move, intended to make a strong statement about the party’s view on the performance of the ANC, has backfired and caused outrage among most citizens.

The DA’s response that their advert was well-intentioned is of even more significant concern. In a country already fraught with racial tension and polarisation, using intentions as a blanket justification for disrespectful actions towards national symbols sets a dangerous precedent. Resorting to such extreme measures to capture attention illuminates a lack of understanding of the far-reaching consequences of such actions.

As the curtain is about to close on campaigns, it is more important than ever that citizens and political parties approach national symbols with the reverence and respect they deserve.

Prof Sethulego Matebesi is associate professor and academic head of department of sociology, University of the Free State