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Take this from a recently resigned politician who doesn’t want to be president when everyone else does: all parties, new and old, are competing in the same old system. This in a country with mobile internet penetration of 85% and in a technological age where reach, connectivity and time can be compressed, shifting the paradigm in a powerful way.

New kids on the block, like Rise Mzansi, spent years knocking on doors and speaking to people to inform their manifesto.

Another presidential hopeful, Roger Jardine, has been almost absent since the starting his political party. Apart from a clip of him shooting hoops on a basketball court, and expensive full-page newspaper adverts, the sum total of his contribution as to how he might address the problems he identifies has been zero.

Mmusi Maimane’s Build One South Africa launch was no different from DA rallies during his tenure: much singing and shouting, promising the world if only voters would lend him their vote.

The older parties are preoccupied with the same old battles as they actively co-opt new bedfellows — one to plug the inevitable decline of the ANC and the other to cobble together clumsy coalitions. 

It’s more of the same in a time that’s crying out for change.

As my departure from the DA over the Gaza issue underscores, there is a vital need for transparent policy processes that are responsive to a dynamic environment, where voter sentiment continuously evolves due to the rapid dissemination of information in the digital age. 

These processes should prioritise ongoing engagement, which would ensure parties stay attuned to public sentiment, enabling them to anticipate and address divisive issues. Continuous engagement is instrumental in securing consent — an immensely important value in a democracy.

As South Africa approaches a pivotal election, these lessons should serve as a catalyst for change. Political parties should reassess their structures and embrace innovation, which would allow for better engagement, responsive policies and transparent governance.

There is a vital need for transparent policy processes that are responsive to a dynamic environment

The question of representation

As it stands, voters have no say in the selection of candidates who will represent them. There is no direct connection, except at election time, when candidates step out to convince people that their party’s programme is the best. The development of manifestos is entirely driven from the centre.

What is missing is an honest broker with the political vision that sows the seeds for a different, more empowering, future. This would mean prioritising a different project: injecting transparency, knowledge, meaning and direct connectivity into the election process. 

In this sense, there’s finally an opportunity for independent candidates to make their mark.

Independent candidates need not win millions of votes nor have an integrated set of policies addressing all areas of society; they can focus on highly selective issues and represent a relatively small constituency. But they still have the same official levers at their disposal as any party — questions, written and oral, petitions, declarations, debates, statements, committee oversight and accountability and private members’ bills.

The point is to use these in a way that resonates with constituents’ needs, with ideas and opinions solicited through online engagement platforms.

The integration of technology presents an opportunity to redefine democratic processes, ensuring that citizens play an active role in shaping their collective future. This allows for real-time, direct citizen engagement in decision-making processes. Online platforms, surveys and virtual town halls enable citizens to voice their opinions, propose ideas, and contribute to policy discussions. This ensures a more representative and inclusive decision-making process. And it’s all accessible to the public.

Digital platforms can track and publicise the performance of politicians, making it easier for citizens to evaluate their representatives. Algorithms and AI can analyse vast amounts of data to identify trends and preferences, informing evidence-based policymaking.

Over and above the process, candidates would need to make clear their defining morals and guiding principles. A human rights and social justice approach, underpinned by a fluid and direct democracy that gives voters a direct and ongoing say, is vital.

There are only a few months before our election, but independent candidates ought to use this time to embed and communicate processes that embody transparency and accountability; that champion human rights and steward social justice.

Thirty years after liberation, our society remains the most diverse, polarised and unequal in the world. Clearly, the policies of liberation movements have not sufficiently addressed this issue. The two major opposition parties, the DA and the EFF, both offer solutions that fail to deal responsibly, and sustainably, with polarisation.

The logic of the party system leads to campaigns that focus on who has won the interests of the voters. Only, those interests are all centrally generated by the party machine with little direct and fluid input from voters. More darkly populist issues such as xenophobia, the death penalty and crass racist solutions are then selectively used to mobilise votes. 

Yet a space can be opened up where freedom, human rights and social justice meet direct democracy to counter a broken system.

The future of democracy lies in the hands of its citizens, and interactive technology provides the tools to empower them. By leveraging these tools for input, transparency, accountability and policy shaping, societies can build a more resilient, adaptive and inclusive democratic framework. 

The door has been opened; this now needs to be taken forward. Our democracy depends on it.

* Cachalia is a former DA shadow minister

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