Picture: GALLO IMAGES/LISA HNATOWICZ
Picture: GALLO IMAGES/LISA HNATOWICZ

While the SA economy is sadly ailing, the political campaigns of recent months demonstrate that our body politic is alive and kicking.

Over the weekend the three biggest political parties held election rallies attracting tens of thousands of supporters who were spirited, lively and thoroughly tolerant and disciplined. The rallies are a testament to the robust health of SA’s democracy.

PODCAST | All hail Kingmaker Malema!

Although we have a large dominant party which has governed for the 25 years since liberation, we also have a multiplicity of smaller parties which are free to campaign and compete. These smaller parties are growing as our democracy matures. So before a single vote has been cast, as South Africans we have a great deal to celebrate. Democracy is thriving.

This alone is reason enough to go out and vote on Wednesday. Each vote is a vote in support of democracy and a vote in support of the belief that as South Africans we have a collective future.

It also promises to be SA’s most fascinating election since 1994. While nothing could surpass the power and awe of the first expression of democracy in 1994, this election will also hold a place in history.

For the first time since 1994, a significant portion of the electorate is shifting preferences. While in previous elections an overwhelming majority voted along lines of national identity, that is changing. A larger number than before have told pollsters that they are undecided on who they will vote for. The polls have shown that preferences have been shifting right up until days before the election. 

There has been much debate on radio and television chat-shows on electoral choices. While in the past, black people might have been reluctant to admit support for the DA, that is no longer the case. Now, thousands don the party’s T-shirts, attend its rallies and will turn out on election day.

The rise of the EFF over the past five years has invigorated debate and put taboo subjects — like the expropriation of land and white domination of the economy — on the public agenda. A few years back these were not subjects that could be raised without fear of being labelled a radical or a racist.

Bad behaviour by the ANC and DA — infighting, factionalism and contradictory messaging — has helped revive the fortunes of smaller parties. Many are enjoying a renaissance because voters believe they have greater integrity than the bigger parties that have shown themselves up so badly.

It all makes for a fascinating contest in which the ANC could fall below 50% for the first time in Gauteng, the country’s economic powerhouse. The growing possibilities for coalition governments — coming after coalitions in 2016 in three of the country's largest cities — is also a good development  for the future of democracy.

Business and investors have tended to be nervous of the prospect of coalitions, as they are unstable and subject to logjams and disruptions. When surveyed, most market players have said they are hoping for a 60% ANC win, which will cause the rand and the JSE to rally and give President Cyril Ramaphosa a clear run of it in governing.

The ANC’s majority at national level is safe, although its percentage might not be as big as market players had previously been thinking. It would be foolish to imagine, however, that in elections to come this will never change. SA has a highly competitive political environment in which national loyalties based on identity are receding and political options are maturing.

In this environment it is important the political parties, voters and business and investors begin to see beyond the present into what a future SA might look like. Even as new electoral prospects pitch up on the scene, a strong and dominant party like the ANC does not dominate forever, neither does it suddenly vanish from the political stage.

Over the next 25 years SA and the proof of its democratic resilience will lie in its ability to manage coalition politics. It is nothing to be afraid of.