Time may have come for a new party that will inspire fresh hope in a disillusioned electorate
The outcome of the elections will be debated and analysed for some time to come, but what is clear is that many South Africans were not particularly impressed or satisfied with what was on offer. After 25 years of democracy, many voters are still scouring the wilderness for a political home with which they're comfortable.
Even those who did vote seem to have done so with some misgivings. We may still be cock-a-hoop about our democracy - best constitution in the world and all that! - but the enthusiasm is apparently no longer widely shared. Voter turnout has shown a calamitous decline in recent years, from 88% in 1999 to 65% this year - a drop of more than 20 percentage points in 20 years. Such figures should jolt us out of our complacency. Our democracy is not at all in rude health.
Scarier still is the fact that almost half the country's young people did not register to vote, and of those who did, some didn't bother to turn up at a polling station. Maybe young people don't have the passion of their parents who experienced the iniquities of apartheid first-hand.
But it could also be that none of the political parties on parade is attractive enough to young people, which is surprising given that some of the parties have a youth league of some sort. If they are already engaged in political activity, they should surely be more inclined to vote in elections.
But political apathy cannot be blamed solely on the youth. There is general disillusionment with the political establishment that seems to cut across all age groups. This seems to be mainly related to, or caused by, the governing party. In fact the decline in voter turnout, and even the increasing number of people who fail to register to vote, seems to be in line with the steady decrease in ANC support. The ANC reached its apogee in the 2004 elections when it took 69.7% of the vote, and it's been declining since. So has overall voter turnout.What's concerning is that it is the youth and the poor, those more reliant on government services, who are the least likely to vote. The tendency of those disillusioned with a government's performance, especially service delivery, is not to punish it at the ballot box by voting for the opposition, but to abstain from voting.The menu on the table is obviously not appetising for the voter. The prevailing conditions are therefore probably ripe for a realignment of political forces or a new political party altogether. We may have reached a typical Gramscian interregnum where "the old is dying and the new cannot be born". We are at a standstill, and rot tends to set in if there's no movement.There's no doubt the ANC is on a downward slope, even a death spiral. It's on life support. That 57.5% share of the vote it won could be deceptive. Many gave their vote grudgingly. The only thing keeping the party together and alive is power. President Cyril Ramaphosa saved its bacon in these elections. It could have been condemned to the opposition benches. It's not clear if there is anything the ANC can do to stem the tide or reverse it. It seems to have overstayed its welcome. Most liberation movements, in Africa especially, do not survive in power for more than 25 years; unless they declare a one-party dictatorship to save their skins, as in Zimbabwe. The ANC is also hobbled by the fact that it is a broad church, and with its alliance partners it becomes truly ungovernable. Such an approach served it well as a liberation movement but a government needs to be specific in its policy direction.And of course there's the corruption en grande that has pitted the pro- and anti-Zuma factions against each other. That, one suspects, is going to be the story of the next five years.
Were the ANC to be judged on its performance, which has been abysmal, even hideous in some instances, it would have been consigned to the political wilderness long ago. Our unique history, the race issue and the poverty of the opposition have been its saving grace.The DA's humiliating performance is being blamed on poor Mmusi Maimane. But he's innocent of the charge. The nub of the problem predates his leadership. It's a case of chickens coming home to roost. That "hit back" campaign of a few elections ago may have grown DA support among white voters, but it was seen as racist and tarnished the party in the eyes of black voters, whom it has to attract in greater numbers if it wants to challenge for power. The campaign confirmed the stereotype of the DA as a party that serves white interests. Five percent of the black vote is an embarrassing return for an official opposition. The party's slogan of "a home for all" seemed appropriate, but it may have been a case of the right message brought by the wrong messenger.The EFF is the only significant party that showed major growth in these elections and looks set to have an even greater impact on the policy direction of the ruling party. But the EFF's existence and its survival depend largely on the whims of its leader. It often appears as though it's a meteor that will rise but ultimately burn itself into oblivion. Also, its propensity for race-bating rules it out as a genuine contender for real power. The people of this country come from that same horrid place, and are unlikely to want to go back there.SA, given its past, is not always an easy country to govern. But most people, regardless of race, want the same thing - a peaceful, secure and prosperous future for themselves and their families. They'll support a party with a unifying message that will make a genuine stab at it.