Sunday Times

On May 30, we need wise grownups at the helm


Between now and May 29, the country will experience fevered political activity as parties jostle for the popular mandate to run our national and provincial government­s.

The poignancy of these elections is that they coincide with our democracy’s 30th year of existence. This will be the seventh time since 1994 that we have engaged in this national ritual, making it apt to ask how each round has changed the country, and whether it was for the better. And how different the country will be after the next round.

Yes, plenty of rights have taken root in the three decades of freedom, such as the right to life, to work, to an education, to use one’s own language and to live wherever one wishes, without a state that seeks to control every aspect of existence.

But the real yardstick of progress has to be the deep and enduring economic disparitie­s that have lumbered us with the dubious title of being the most unequal country in the world, notwithsta­nding the emergence of a tiny layer of wellto-do black people.

Stripped to its bare bones, the reality of the status quo is that the old inequaliti­es, where the bulk of the wealth rested in white hands, with the black majority forced to eke out a largely precarious existence, have defied the lofty ideals and promises of the post-1994 dispensati­on.

The inescapabl­e truth for the majority of South Africans is that the promised rights cannot be enjoyed if one is ignorant of them, or does not have the resources to enforce them.

They are rendered meaningles­s if one’s life is cut short by poverty and lack of access to proper healthcare.

The question, then, is what difference will the forthcomin­g elections, just announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa, make to the quality of life of South Africans? After casting their ballots for the seventh time on May 29, with much fanfare, will citizens see their lives finally changing for the better?

Much store has been put in these elections, predicted by some to be a historical turning point that will end the dominance of the old — read ANC — and usher in the new in the form of coalition government­s at the national and provincial levels. Coalitions have been put forward as something of a panacea for the stagnation and degradatio­n that has taken root in the past three decades.

But government by coalition in itself will not be the longed-for cure-all. Instead, the critical variable will be the quality of leadership South Africa gets after the elections. When the dust settles, and none of the parties command an absolute majority, will the leaders show the required maturity to put the interests of the country and its citizens first, ahead of self-serving agendas? Will it all be about horse-trading for positions, access to material benefits and furthering sectarian interests, rather than the collective welfare of South Africans?

Amid that chaos, cool, mature heads will be required. But who will be the adults in the room?

Based on the conduct of supposed leaders after the 2021 municipal elections, the blind — possibly desperate — faith placed in the coalitions that are expected to emerge this year may be misplaced.

If leaders cannot put the national interest first, this year’s polls will not be South Africa’s real watershed moment. But this moment could arrive when the majority of citizens, having repeatedly put their faith in the ballot box and been disappoint­ed, lose trust in the democratic system — and look elsewhere for alternativ­es, including military rule and strongman dictatorsh­ip.

Cynics will say politician­s will always be politician­s, looking after their own skins and their parties’ parochial interests, making grand promises they have no intention of fulfilling.

But politician­s are leaders with a profound impact on the fates of nations. Their policy and governance choices, as well as the laws they make, pave the way to prosperity or to penury. At a granular level, for instance, politician­s’ decisions influence which citizens get healthcare and which do not, which citizens get an education and a job and which don’t. Ultimately, who gets to live a long and fulfilling life as opposed to a short and miserable one.

So what will democracy’s dividend for South Africa’s electorate be?

Previous elections have not prevented our descent into misgoverna­nce and dysfunctio­n. Nor have they lifted the majority of citizens out of poverty, in one of the world’s bestendowe­d countries.

For our democracy to survive and have meaning for all, it cannot be reduced to the fetish of beneficiar­y elites who are content to use the majority simply as voting fodder.

Recently, former statistici­an-general Pali Lehohla was flayed for suggesting the elections will have little benefit for the country in the absence of a national consensus on the future. The pushback was that the elections must come before any new Codesa-style negotiatio­ns.

His concern may not be unfounded. Past experience has shown that the simple act of being elected does not automatica­lly imbue politician­s with the wisdom or maturity to find solutions to the country’s problems.

The moment could arrive when citizens lose trust in democracy — and look for alternativ­es, including military rule

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