subscribe Support our award-winning journalism. The Premium package (digital only) is R30 for the first month and thereafter you pay R129 p/m now ad-free for all subscribers.
Subscribe now

South Africans were a jury at the weekend, listening to the closing arguments to influence their decision on May 29.

An enormous citizen challenge awaits in preserving SA’s economic, political, constitutional and democratic order. Almost all leaders who addressed their supporters humbled themselves to the voters and declared, “We know you have all heard us as we made the case; we are now waiting for your verdict.”

Despite the show of numerical force through the ritual of stadium-filling, it was clear that voter sentiment was fast becoming an unknown to those campaigning. Voters have realised how close SA’s democratic order is to either a precipice or a historic turning point. For a brief time, the choice is theirs.

The geopolitical and African political and economic significance of who governs SA was foregrounded through how ratings agencies took a posture towards pronouncements by political parties. What agencies see as favourable scenarios sent a message about what the proverbial investor and market forces expect of whoever emerges as a leader. They were unequivocal that they will not take kindly to a coalition between the ANC and the EFF or MK.

The dominant themes from the addresses of political parties were what the past, present and future gevaar (danger) would be. Typical of SA election seasons since a constitution-based democracy was founded in 1910, voters were incentivised with one fear or another. This time, swart gevaar was replaced by nonracial gevaar.

The ANC’s theme was that the voters should decide if the country should move forward with the ANC or backwards to a terrible past. The DA’s gevaar was that the voters should decide on a functioning SA, using the Western Cape as a benchmark, or a dysfunctional one, with the service delivery challenges elsewhere as evidence.

The EFF’s gevaar theme was the management of the elections and counting process. It raised the need for vigilance at counting as it has “done everything humanly possible”. The MK theme is that the ANC leadership has veered off its mandate and, by extension, the government would not deliver the liberation promise.

The five focus areas the ANC raised as the pillars of its manifesto were common with the three largest political parties. How each thematic focus was nuanced in ideological terms made the difference. These were a jobs plan through investment and industrialisation, tackling the high cost of living, investing in South Africans and providing the services they need; defending democracy and advancing the freedom(s) gained; and building a better Africa and world.

In addition, there was land restitution, radical economic transformation, and the immigration and urbanisation issues associated with foreign nationals. These themes permeated speeches made over the weekend and are the basis on which voters were asked to vote. The sub-context is that they are even prepared to coalesce around these in the event of a less than 50% performance.

The commonalities in the rhetoric and realism of manifestos attest to the call by Thabo Mbeki, incidentally supported by President Cyril Ramaphosa and influential civil society leaders, for a national dialogue.

The economic crisis, intertwined with threats to democracy as manifested by public infrastructure decay and myriad service delivery dysfunctions, demands the renewal of political and societal systems to align with national realities. This requires a renewed commitment to the constitutional and democratic order, leveraging collective intelligence and civic engagement to confront and adapt to the challenges of disintegrating social cohesion. This was the sub-context of several speeches over the weekend.

The land issue, acutely represented by the remonstrations around the Ingonyama Trust, as the abstraction of the general, indicates that land as a national grievance issue is generating echoes of conversations that must burst into the open. 

The potential disintegration of the centre in certain provinces will rapidly erode the stability of the democratic order. Polls indicate a dramatic change in voting patterns in KwaZulu-Natal, Western Cape, Gauteng and Limpopo, which account for 66.56% of the registered voters. With a stretched margin of error downwards of the polls, KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng will not have a party polling above the 50% required threshold to govern.

The MK party dynamic has made this a reality in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, while the Patriotic Alliance and the Gaza crisis will be dynamics in the Western Cape. Whatever the messages, the numbers indicate a coalition-intensive political future for SA, a context favourable for an anti-majority rule favouring economic establishment.

A complex coalition government-induced intergovernmental relations system will be an outcome the centrist bureaucracy will be challenged to handle in the national government. Beyond the vote, SA might have several reset buttons to press, the most critical being the government of national unity button.

Among SA’s political parties, acutely many in their national executive committees or C-suite levels, not one of them is ready to meet the coalition government, government of national unity and sheer bureaucratic demands of the post-election context to be triggered by the accompanying political mandate asymmetries. Political mandates will be federal, while political parties are still centralist.

As voters will be responding to the politicians they have heard during campaigns, the great question is to what depth are the listening competencies of the politicians. Our emerging politics tells us that the new form of the voter is nothing common or mediocre. It tells us that the SA voter has become more predictable, and the electoral outcomes in 2016 and 2021 in urban municipalities are evidence.

Evolving democracies are like a map where the boundaries expand into untold possibilities. The true test of the templates our constitutional order is about will be stretched and tested to their limits. 

• Dr FM Lucky Mathebula is a public policy analyst and founder of Tshwane-based think-tank The Thinc Foundation.

subscribe Support our award-winning journalism. The Premium package (digital only) is R30 for the first month and thereafter you pay R129 p/m now ad-free for all subscribers.
Subscribe now

Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.