Imagine a system in which public representatives, and voters' concerns, actually mattered

21 April 2019 - 00:05 By

A spelling blunder on a huge ANC billboard bearing President Cyril Ramaphosa's ever-smiling face in Port Elizabeth provided light relief in what has been a dismal and boring election campaign.
The amusement at the ANC's expense must have stung because, in an effort to correct the error, the party issued a statement. Unfortunately, it was riddled with grammatical and spelling mistakes of its own.
"We will continue to work hard and make strides in gunnering [sic] support for the ANC," it thundered. Maybe somebody was thinking about guns. It was certainly fighting talk.
Then there's the picture that's been titillating people on social media - a nattily attired Jeff Radebe awkwardly posing with a young voter who seems unimpressed with the T-shirt he's just received. The optics, as they say, are not good. There's no eye contact between the two. There's Radebe, arms akimbo, looking almost ill at ease, in front of a skeletal mud hut that seems as though it would have long keeled over but for the two poles buttressing it. Jeff seems from another world. Everything around him is alien. Maybe he should be commended for going the extra mile in search of a vote, but the picture tells a less-flattering story than the one intended.
But such thrills are few and far between. Apart from the fire and brimstone on the ground by protesters seeking to attract the attention of vote-hungry politicians, the campaign has been pretty dull. The same photos of party leaders hang on every pole and every tree in every village and suburb - Ramaphosa with his plastic smile (say cheese), Julius Malema in his funny headgear, and an unsmiling Mmusi Maimane trying to look presidential. The messages on the posters are equally pedestrian and lack imagination. The ANC's standard message, the one that's been famously neutered, says: "Let's grow South Africa together". But that goes without saying. It's a given. It's not even worth the poster it's written on.
Sometimes these messages don't even make sense. The DA's posters in Johannesburg's northern suburbs, for instance, are almost exclusively written in African languages. Commendable, perhaps, but is the intention to inform or to impress? In fact, in some instances the language is almost impenetrable even to first-language speakers. Maybe, as one wag wryly noted, the message is aimed at the maids and the gardeners. The madam's already in the bag.
There's one reason you're confronted by the same poster of a genial Ramaphosa, or Malema in red overalls, or a serious Maimane whether you're in Mahushu in Mpumalanga, Cofimvaba in the Eastern Cape or Marikana in North West: the leader represents the party. He is the symbol, the image of the party. And that is important, because in SA under current legislation we vote for the party, not for an individual.
The party, not the voter, decides who goes to parliament. All the voter does in an election is give the party a blank cheque. Everything is centred on the party leader. He's the fount of all wisdom. This practice has engendered the sort of behaviour or attitude that's been prevalent in Africa for so many years, of the leader as all-knowing and omnipotent - the so-called Big Man syndrome, often corrupt and autocratic. The Big Men stay too long in power and when they are done, choose their successor, often a member of the family. Which is what Jacob Zuma almost succeeded in doing.
The men and women who'll rock up after the elections to be sworn in as our "public representatives" in parliament play absolutely no role in this campaign. They're insignificant and invisible. They will get seats as a reward for loyalty to their party, not for their service to the voters or the community. And it has a stench of bribery about it. Which is why all the skelms have made it onto their party lists - to buy their silence. As Lyndon Johnson once said of J Edgar Hoover, "it's better to have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in". Choice, the basis any democracy, is next to nonexistent. The sum total of what passes for an election campaign is a smiling face on a poster hanging on every pole throughout the country. It's almost as if the country has been reduced to a single village or a community with the same needs, grievances and aspirations.
But imagine, for instance, if the country had been divided into constituencies with political parties fielding candidates all vying to win the confidence of the community. Think of the colour as each constituency is plastered with posters and messages or policies of the different parties. Candidates or their agents would accost you at your local mall or spaza shop or shebeen to solicit your support. The candidates could even decide to have a debate in the local hall, moderated by the community itself. It would be a thrill, for instance, to have a candidate sit down with you in your living room to explain what he or she would do to earn your vote. People would not feel that they were speaking to a void (as is currently the case); they would feel that there was somebody listening who either represented power or would convey their grievances to those in power.
Think of the camaraderie that would become part of our political culture if sons and daughters from the same village or suburb aspired to represent the area.
Such a system would not only make our politics more representative and accountable, but would also go a long way to educating the general populace about using politics to cater to their needs. Perhaps the angry fires consuming the country would cease because people would realise there's a more agreeable and peaceful way to address their grievances.

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