Last week’s local government elections in South Africa were marred by racial slurs, ethnocentric witch-hunting, mudslinging and outright physical elimination of political opponents. The country’s electoral commission remained indolent and incapable of taking bold steps to put an end to the blatant abuse of citizens’ right to choose their own leaders. Free and fair elections remain a big challenge in the rainbow nation.
The term ‘pogrom’ seems to be a befitting epithet to describe the wanton killings and verbal vendettas that characterized the campaign rallies preceding the August 3 local government elections in the rainbow nation of South Africa. As in the past, the running of this year’s elections has been tainted by cut-throat competition, unbridled recourse to racial slurs, ethnocentric witch-hunting, mudslinging and outright physical elimination of political opponents much to the dismay of a shocked citizenry nationwide. Little wonder, the slogan “use the ballot, not the bullet” became the rallying cry of petrified political militants and observers during the run-up to the municipal elections.
To date, South Africa boasts scores of political parties, some as thinly populated as the average household in the country. The major contenders in this year’s polls were the African National Congress (ANC), Democratic Alliance (DA), Economic Freedom Fighters(EFF), Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), United Democratic Movement (UDM) and National Freedom Party (NFP). Some political light-weights vying for votes were the African People’s Convention (APC), Congress of the People (COP), African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), and the South African Communist Party among others.
The mind-boggling anomaly about the just concluded municipal elections in South Africa is the penchant for lethal inter-party rivalry among contestants. In a bid to canvass for votes for the ruling party (ANC), incumbent president, Jacob Zuma, simply tossed decorum to the dogs and resorted to name-calling and racial slurs to cast aspersions on political opponents. Speaking to throngs of party supporters in Polokwane in the Limpopo Province on July 26, 2016, the president singled out his most dreaded political opponent, Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party and called on voters to shun the EFF on the following terms: “Don’t vote for the boy from Limpopo” (Sowetan, July 26, 2016, p.12). In yet another tirade, Zuma likened Malema to a liar: “Don’t vote for the party of the boy from Limpopo who is disrespectful and a liar” (Sowetan, July 25, p.4).
There is a consensus among the rank and file in South Africa that President Zuma’s political rants are preposterous and unbecoming of a president. Zuma has repeatedly taken pot shots at the DA party, accusing it of being a race-conscious party. At the same time, he appoints members of this party as ambassadors. It is to this incongruity and selective amnesia that Thembo Sono alludes when he posits that Jacob Zuma’s racist taunts reach “lunatic proportions when he himself appoints DA white members as ambassadors, like Douglas Gibson, while denouncing Maimane for consorting with whites” (Sowetan, July 22, 2016.p.20). It should be noted that Mmusi Maimane is leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA) party.
Writing in the same paper, Richardson Mzaidume took umbrage at the president’s comments: “It’s very unfortunate that during his campaign for votes, President Jacob Zuma, infamously known as the dancing truant, used racism to drive his point home” (Sowetan, p.12). Zuma has repeatedly referred to the Democratic Alliance (DA) party as a resurrected National Party (NP), the party that institutionalized apartheid in South Africa. Mzaidume qualified Zuma’s remarks as unfortunate and pointed out that “Zuma is not just the president of black people but also of the same whites he is now blasting. The ANC also has a sizeable number of white members.” (Sowetan, July 26, 2016, p.12).
A spate of politically motivated murders has left militants of all political parties petrified. The killing of two Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) members by suspects allegedly wearing ANC T-shirts was reported in the Sowetan (July 27, 2016, p.8). The paper reports that Bongani Skhosana, age 29, was shot dead while returning from an IFP door-to-door campaign. Skhosana was wearing the party’s T-shirt when he was shot four times in the stomach by a man wearing an ANC T-shirt. Another IFP party militant, Siyanda Mnguni, was shot and killed outside a tavern just hours after Skhosana’s killing a street away. These gruesome murders sent chills down the spines of candidates who had been nominated by their wards. Nationwide, voters were crippled with the fear of being killed for simply exercising their constitutional right to vote.
Indubitably, this status quo is a slap in the face of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) which seems to be a toothless bull dog. In spite of these ‘pogroms’ jeopardizing the likelihood of free and fair elections in South Africa, the IEC remained indolent and incapable of taking bold steps to put an end to the blatant abuse of citizens’ right to choose their own leaders. In a desperate plea to the IEC, the chairperson of the Inkatha Freedom Party, Blessed Gwala wrote: “We call on the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) to ensure that there are consequences for those who don’t adhere to the electoral code of conduct. When acts of violence or intimidation take place, it’s a direct challenge to the IEC and police as perpetrators of such violence are testing the resolve of the IEC to ensure that there are free and fair elections”(Sowetan, July 27, 2016, p.8).
Truth must be told. Given the current state of affairs in South Africa, the notion of free and fair elections is a tall order. These acts pose a daunting challenge to the democratization process in the country. As Mmusi Maimane puts it, “… elections and the campaigns by political parties are, by their very essence, a festival of the democratic process of electing leaders” (Sowetan, July 27, 2016, p.16). Speaking in the same vein, Deputy President, Cyril Ramaphosa hit the nail on the head when he observed that these killings defile South Africa’s “… democratic intent as a nation.”(Sowetan, July 25, 2016). He underscored the fact that South Africa’s ethos was about giving people a choice and this meant zero tolerance for the status quo where murderers are given the right to choose who should be elected to govern. The Deputy President made these remarks on his campaign trail in Tembisa, a township next to Pretoria in Gauteng Province.
To date, scores of political party militants have been murdered. These include militants from the African National Congress, Inkatha Freedom Party and National Freedom Party. One of the politically-motivated killings that shocked the entire nation was the slaying of Kyanyisile Ngobese Sibisi, the ANC Women’s League secretary in Kwazulu Natal. She was a candidate in Ward 20 for the local government elections. The Sowetan reports that Kyanyisile Ngobese Sibisi was shot eight times with an AK-47 by gunmen traveling in a car. One of Kyanyisile Ngobese Sibisi’s comrades said that Kyanyisile Ngobese Sibisi did not want to stand as councilor but the party had persuaded her to accept the nomination because of her qualities. Clearly, the murder of this woman is a portent illustration of the triumph of mediocrity over meritocracy in the rainbow nation of South Africa. Adumbrating this theme further, Prince Mashele makes the following suggestion: “The best solution would be for a political party to adopt meritocracy as a guiding principle in choosing and replacing candidates for political office. This may seem banal, but strict adherence to it can save lives and build a better society” (Sowetan, July 25, 2016, p.15).
Though the motives for these murders are yet to be unraveled, the grapevine had it that those who were killed were to be replaced by murderous aspirants. But the Independent Electoral Commission has bad news for the hopefuls: “All the councilor candidates who have been recently killed across the country will still be fielded to contest their respective wards in the upcoming local government elections” (Sowetan, July 27, 2016, p.4). In an article titled “Assassinated Candidates Can Still Be Elected,” Independent Electoral Commission Chairperson, Kate Bapela, explained: “The law did not allow the Commission to do anything now in terms of getting the candidates replaced. There is no time to replace the deceased candidates before the elections which are scheduled for next week” (p.4). She further shed light on what would transpire after the August 3 ballot: “We will go with the candidates who were nominated. Just after the elections we will have to hold by-elections in all the affected wards” (p.4).
Interestingly, interparty warfare does not seem to be the lone canker eating into the very fabric of South Africa’s polity. Intra-party strife is sounding the death knell for the country’s political superstructure. Political murders continued to haunt South Africans of all stripes as they headed to the polls on August 3, 2016. In an article published in Sowetan (July 25, 2016), Prince Mashele opines that “Speculation is rife within communities that the killings are by ANC members who covet positions held by those murdered, the logic being that the dead shall be replaced by the murderers within the party”(p.15).
In sum, there is no gainsaying the fact that South Africans have their job cut out for them. Tata Madiba Nelson Mandela, who spent twenty-seven years of his life in maximum security prisons for championing the cause of Black liberation in South Africa, must be turning several times in his grave right now. The onus rests with voters who have the yam and the knife. They must exercise their voting right to oust bad leaders who relish the thought of stirring the hornet’s nest for personal gain. Such unpatriotic leaders ought to be replaced with good ones. To do so, voter education is crucial. South Africans must shun tribal politics; they must steer clear of political hawks that swoop down on the electorate with empty promises on the eve of elections and vanish like the Harmattan wind at the dawn of elections.
I was visiting friends in South Africa during the pre-election period and noticed how some ill-informed voters were easily bought over with ephemeral stuff such as free blankets and cheap food. Voters must be wise enough to exercise caution in distinguishing voting for the kind of change that builds and solidifies the rainbow nation from the brand of tribal politics that has the potential to tear the nation into shreds by bloating the ego of a rapacious oligarchy resident in Pretoria.
* Peter Wuteh Vakunta is Professor of Global Languages and Cross-Cultural Studies at the University of Indianapolis, United States of America.
* THE VIEWS OF THE ABOVE ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF THE PAMBAZUKA NEWS EDITORIAL TEAM
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