On the Quality of Electioneering in South Africa

By Frank Meintjies · 25 Jul 2013

A+ A= A-
    Print this page       comments
Picture: United Nations Photo/Flickr
Picture: United Nations Photo/Flickr

It’s much too early to start election predictions; but it is opportune to discuss the content and quality of electioneering. How parties conduct elections leaves deep marks, for better or worse, on our democracy. It can either highlight or neglect the pertinent issues facing major social groups. It can help grow a democratic culture or weaken it.

We need an electioneering process with as much light as heat. We need a lead-up to the actual elections that includes good debate, quality information on options facing the country and interactions that make citizens feels stronger and more valued, rather than weakened. We need campaigning that leaves ordinary people feeling that they are indeed able to influence the country’s direction.

Several issues could form part of a litmus test for a good season of electioneering.

Forms of Campaigning

As parties plan to hit the campaign trail, how will parties campaign, what strategies do they plan to use and will they do so in ways which show respect for voters? Will they, out on the hustings (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/Husting), remind voters of the need to hold them accountable? Will they campaign in ways that builds faith in democracy? How much mudslinging will take place, and to what extent will it divert us from the real issues. We, the voting public, want parties to focus on the real issues and engage in meaningful debate. 

Parties should avoid bullying tactics: when citizens ask pointed questions about past behaviour or performance, they should focus on the issue and desist from attacking the messenger.

We can also ask: how much violence and intimidation will occur? Even where violence is isolated or limited – because fear constricts free thought – it corrodes democracy and narrows the democratic space. As South Africans, we boast of peaceful elections, and in general this is true. But low-level conflict has always been present in the margins. We have seen intimidation, disruptions to freedom of association and attempts – especially in the context of party splits – to impose “no go areas”. And, linked to the manoeuvring of local politicians, we have witnessed xenophobic violence against Somalian shopkeepers and sustained attacks on social action groups such as Abahlali baseMjondolo.

Youth Issues

It is vital that youth are included in debates and discussion. To the extent that they are, and to the degree that youth voices impact, the youth can help shape the political agenda. What the new generation has to say – the aspirations, the expectations of leadership and youth views of progress to date – will help our society better prepare for the future. Even government departments can learn from such articulation – most, in their planning, have not yet realised that youth form the biggest population segment and that, as happened at key points in history, discontent within their ranks is high and rising.

As parties vie for the youth vote, it will be important to track whether young people are merely being “mis-mobilised” to support other agendas. The African National Congress, Democratic Alliance (DA), Economic Freedom Fighters and Agang are all aiming to attract the youth vote. But the question can be asked: do parties that mobilise youth support have concrete plans to address youth issues in an ongoing way? For example, the Red Berets are counting on the youth vote; but they focus on major national issues and are silent about specific measures and programmes aimed at the youth.

For its part, the DA has stolen a march on many other parties by absorbing disenchanted black graduates into key roles. But it fails to realise that its gradualist approach, based on economic “trickle down”, is insufficient to address widespread youth exclusion and restlessness.

And the other key parties? Most of them are struggling to counterbalance the benefit of ‘veterans’ and pride in past achievements with an inflow of new ideas – ones more in tune with youth thinking – that are needed to renew themselves and take our country forward.

Service Delivery

As one gets closer to elections, there is likely to be a speeding-up of delivery. The respective opposition parties may well cry foul about such stepped-up delivery, slamming it as insincere. However, we should ignore the finger pointing among parties and welcome such revved-up delivery: service delivery has lagged so far behind that at this point, we will take almost anything. The political parties, in delivering more, are showing us what is possible when they put their minds to it. Citizens should encourage this accelerated delivery – and square up to remind ruling parties of this capability in the future.

Awareness of Responsibilities Afterward

As we prepare for elections, we should reflect on the ongoing responsibilities and involvement of the voter. This is one of the objectives of the Independent Electoral Commission, albeit a neglected one; it is also implicit in the National Development Plan’s appeal for an ‘active citizenship’.

Our society and its political system must make it easy for us to follow through on this long-term responsibility. Parties should more closely monitor how the constituency budget is used, whether constituency work helps resolve community problems and what report-back has been given.

Steps should be taken to ensure better report-back forums as well as citizen involvement in monitoring and evaluation. Report backs should go beyond the occasional meeting where powerful office-bearers and experts dominate proceedings. Instead, we should have annual dialogue-rich engagements involving women, youth, local associations, traders and local civic bodies.

Citizens should take the initiative to follow up. Voters should commit to following up, organising, asking questions and checking to see not only whether promises have been met but also if those elected are behaving as leaders should.

The signs on many of these issues are not good. Violence and intimidation cast a shadow over the ongoing rivalry between the Inkatha Freedom Party and the National Freedom Party, for example. Intellectual bullying and mudslinging constantly surface, even during sessions of parliament, hindering discussion of key issues. And some politicians continue to be uncomfortable with open debate involving citizens or critical civil society representatives. But let’s keep an open mind.

The period of electioneering and elections is not just about gaining votes (for the party) or dutifully voting while hoping for the best from politicians (for the voters). It is about society-building. It is about citizens – about facilitating and amplifying the voices of the people. South Africa’s democracy is a tender shoot, one which needs nurturing, and we can use the vote-catching season to make democracy stronger.

Meintjies is an independent consultant and a Visiting Research Fellow at Wits School of Public & Development Management.

Should you wish to republish this SACSIS article, please attribute the author and cite The South African Civil Society Information Service as its source.

All of SACSIS' originally produced articles, videos, podcasts and transcripts are licensed under a Creative Commons license. For more information about our Copyright Policy, please click here.

To receive an email notification when a new SACSIS article is published, please click here.

For regular and timely updates of new SACSIS articles, you can also follow us on Twitter @SACSIS_News and/or become a SACSIS fan on Facebook.

You can find this page online at http://sacsis.org.za/site/article/1736.

A+ A= A-
    Print this page       comments

Leave A Comment

Posts by unregistered readers are moderated. Posts by registered readers are published immediately. Why wait? Register now or log in!


25 Jul

Quality of Electionering...

To the very best of my knowledge it is only the ANC who resort to thuggery threats and intimidation at election time. If anyone is in disagreement of what I have stated then kindly enlighten me!

Respond to this comment