Battle of the streets versus the ballot box in 2014

As election day draws closer the case of Bekkersdal is instructive in highlighting the complex and sometimes competitive relationship between protest action and the ballot box.

While protests are a democratic right and proudly rooted in South Africa’s struggle history increasing violence and at times criminality and xenophobia often mean the democratic rights of other citizens are compromised by protest action. Apart from safety and access to services being undermined the right to vote — one of the most fundamental ways in which citizens can censure poor service delivery — has been compromised by disrupted voter registration in protest-ridden communities such as Bekkersdal and Sterkspruit.

In this respect community leaders are choosing the street over the ballot box raising questions of how long this is likely to last and how to overcome it to promote a better functioning democracy.

In Bekkersdal the African National Congress (ANC) had to censure a party official who was pictured in full party colours holding a gun that had been fired to disperse protesters in the wake of an ugly run-in with residents. They had not forgotten Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane saying the ANC did not need the community’s "dirty votes" nor accepted her apology with community leaders suggesting that no votes (for any political party) would be forthcoming in the elections. As a result it became difficult for residents to register — a worrying equation of unhappiness with government delivery being associated not only with the ANC but the entire democratic system.

In this respect poor relations between authority figures the ANC and the Bekkersdal community resemble those that bedevilled Khutsong in 2006 when voters abstained from municipal elections in order to assert provincial demarcation demands. Violent protests and voter abstinence became the main leverage points for Khutsong’s community to push for its incorporation into Gauteng ultimately winning capitulation and redemarcation.

For disillusioned communities such as those of Khutsong Bekkersdal or Zamdela there appears to be a calculation that bypasses the ballot box — raise enough destruction and win enough media attention and high-ranking government/ANC officials will attend directly to demands. In this respect protests have become a sort of appeal mechanism albeit one with great risk and cost to communities.

For academics and analysts especially those outside South Africa protest action via voter abstinence and destruction is perplexing and self-defeating but needs to be contextualised within a struggle culture that "stayed away" from what were perceived to be discredited processes and structures. Of course such thinking is problematic given that South Africa’s democracy is one of the most carefully constructed and closely guarded in the world.

The other important issue is an apparent absence of credible opposition parties with the withholding of votes seen as a punishment of the ANC. To this end the Economic Freedom Fighters’ warm reception in Bekkersdal signalled that alternatives to the ANC may be taking root in disenfranchised communities and are a welcome development for democracy; bolstering the ballot box as a form of democratic expression.

For the ANC developments in Bekkersdal have several implications. The credibility of councillors as democratic representatives is imperative to bolster the legitimacy of local elections and democratic structures such as ward committees. For a well-functioning democracy it is important that the ANC in particular resolves issues around candidate lists in the run-up to elections and that all parties encourage officials to attend to the grievances of their constituencies during their tenure rather than focus on party politics at the cost of local representation.

Consider the case of Buffalo City where a report by the speaker found that 27 of the metro’s 50 ward councillors had failed to convene public meetings since the 2011 local elections. It would be interesting to know how this engagement compares with attendance of ANC branch meetings. While there is little doubt that South Africa’s democracy is vibrant the complexities of a majority party mean officials are incentivised to attend to party matters and communities have learnt to appeal to party officials through protests rather than the ballot box. 

It can only be hoped that this is a phase in the evolution of our democracy.