South Africa goes to the polls but Zuma remains president!

South Africa goes to the polls but Zuma remains president!

By Profesor Michelo Hansungule

President Zuma

President Zuma

South Africa, subregional economic powerhouse, is going for elections the coming week. This will be two decades after freedom in 1994 and the first election without founder first black African president icon late Xholisasa Nelson Mandela. More than two dozen political parties have been crisscrossing the length and breadth of the country selling their party manifestos and woing voters. Under South Africa’s rainbow nation electoral system, voters choose parties rather than individuals to represent them in local government, in Parliament and as President. And only a political party which secures 50,000 voters secures a seat in Parliament.

Though elections are only next week, there is no doubt, however, that incumbent President Jacob Zuma will be president of the country come election-day. But how is this? Most people including opposition political parties in South Africa itself do not understand South African electoral system. Under its party system, ruling African National Congress (ANC) chose its president at its Congress initially at Polokwane subsequently ratified by latter Congress. This means the ANCs party presidential candidate for the presidency was chosen long time ago and will not be chosen during next week’s election. What will be chosen next week is a political party or parties to govern the country for the next five years as per Constitution. Of course there is ‘election’ of the president by Parliament after elections as per constitution but this is symbolic. Given the ANC numbers in Parliament post-elections is foregone; in any case, Parliament was only inforrmed of Thabio Mbeki’s recall after the fact.

But most Zambians may still not understand how if elections are only next week, Zuma will be president before the fact? It is a relevant question particularly for Zambians, Mauritians and probably Malawians in the region. Zambia has rejected incumbent presidents twice before first when in the historical 1991 elections they rejected founding president Kenneth Kaunda and second during the last 2011 elections when they rejected immediate past president Rupiah Banda. Alongside Malawi and, of course, Mauritius, Zambia is one of the few countries in the SADC region to reject incumbent parties and heads of state. Malawians who are going for the polls later this month, rejected Malawi founder Life president Ngwazi Kamuzu Banda when they elected second Republican president Bakili Muluzi in 1994.

But this scenario cannot happen in South Africa, at least not now. First because as indicated, Zuma is already the torch bearer of the ANC. Second, memories of centuries of apartheid misrule are still fresh in South Africa twenty years after freedom. The ‘memory vote’ has been instrumental in swinging the national and local votes in favour of the former liberation movement the ACC. This author observed how some of the elderly voters in a rural part of South Africa during the last elections on being asked who they wanted to vote for mention ‘Mandela’. This, despite that by that time, Mandela had already retired from office and, therefore, was not on any of the ballot papers in an electoral system which does not reflect individuals but parties on ballots. Most people especially in the West do not understand why the ghost of apartheid still determines the results of elections today? It is quite simple. Europeans are still hunting perpetrators of Nazism over half a century later, why is that? Memories do not die but just fade over time. Unless one completely ignores the fact that so-called ‘free voters’ as post-1994 voters are called in South Africa were born from families that endured the barbarisms of apartheid, it will be foolhardy to expect all those born after 1994 to not be guided in how they vote next week by the spirits of their ancestors.

The second reason why is Zuma who is president today will be president after May 7 is poverty. In a sense this is ironical. How can poverty in the community determine Zuma political career next week with all that has been said and written all over about Zuma being instrumental in creating poverty among the poor South Africans through his lifestyle? Well, this indeed is a problem but it is not so much a problem among South Africa’s majority poor who simultaneously are majority voters. When they look at ANC and other parties, majority voters easily see ANC as identifying with the poorest hence has stronger in-built pro-poor policies regardless of what individuals like Zuma are said to be doing or not doing. They are ready to ignore and brush aside allegations that Zuma took millions of state money to his home village in famous Nkandila in Kwa Zulu Natal province to build his compound and went scot free. Majority voters are not bothered about this or other scandals and mud thrown at senior ruling party officials. Like in the rest of Africa, some of the voters even think leaders once in power have a right to do and use public resources as they please.

Moleketsi Mbeki, former President Thabo Mbeki’s brother, in his book the ‘Architects of Poverty’ argued that majority poor South African voters will continue to vote for the ruling ANC as long as they get their social grants. Unlike in Zambia and most African countries, there is a law in South Africa which guarantees every South African of sixty years or above to a monthly social grant now roughly standing at 1,300 Rand per month or close to 1,000 Kwacha (previously 1,000,000 Kwacha), money you get just for being sixty or above. Beneficiaries of social and other grants of course feel grateful to be getting this extremely important life support for most families. South Africa has gradually been getting expensive country and is quite expensive now. Unlike in most African countries where majority populations depend on land and family support networks, the nature of the South African apartheid completely urbanized everyone leaving most with hardly any support than state. Here is the hypothesis: where social grants, which apparently are very costly to the national treasury, to be scrapped today, the prospect of the ruling party losing power next week but also social chaos would not be far-fetched.


Beyond South Africa, however, one of the main sources of poverty is unelected government.  Poverty, the human condition that is characterized by deprivation of resources, capabilities, choices and opportunity to enjoy fundamental human rights and freedoms, easily hibernates in dictatorship than in democracies. While there is poverty in conditions of ‘freedom’ as seen in countries like South Africa, dictatorship is the main source of poverty. Africa is full of examples of unelected governments. Throughout the 70s and 80s, Africa was solely run by unelected governments which is a government not based on principles of good government. The hypothesis is that good government promotes effective, efficient, accountable and responsive government to the needs of its citizens. An excellent example of bad government is this article from a barbershop in Pretoria. It reads:

Dear Child

As long as you live in this House you will follow the rules. When you have your own house, you can make your own rules. In this house, we do not have democracy. I did not campaign to be your parent. You did not vote for me. We are parent and child by the Grace of God, and I accept that awesome responsibility. In accepting it I have no obligation to perform the role of parent. I am not accountable to you for whatever I think or do. You can’t demand efficiency from me. You will do in this house as I say. While you will ask questions, you shall not question my authority. You can’t sue me for my failure to deliver on any of my promises to you of which I am not obliged to make to you. You have no right to complain to a third person against any of my conducts…………………………………….’.

Justifications for elections

Elections are very important for good governance. Good governance is essential for the fight against poverty. Which directly runs counter to the experience I and my colleagues went through during election observation in one Af0rican country. When paying a courtesy call on him, incumbent head of state of that country asked me a completely unexpected question: So, you are here to observe elections? When I answered in the affirmative, he asked this: Do you really think anyone can remove me from this chair with a piece of paper? I did not have to answer this, of course, and just let the loud defeaning laughter around me go on. I told myself he knew the answer even as he dared ask me.

In an article on ‘Elections’, Eric Brahim (2005) identified two principal factors justifying elections. First of these is that elections are important because they provide the government with legitimacy. It is important that officials of government are chosen rather than impose themselves through a process of popular will. Post-colonial governments in Africa just like the colonial government ignored this basic but crucially important principle that without the popular will of the governed you have no right to office. Second, Brahim observed that elections are important in that, in principle, they allow for the alternation in government of various political formations. In Africa during the one-party system, there was no possibility of change of the one-party in government and therefore no opportunity to expose policies and systems to new ideas. With one party and in fact one man in power, there was no opportunity to listen to different debates, for example, on policy towards poverty. Through elections, an opportunity exists for diverse voices to be heard which increases opportunity to solve the challenges and problems faced by the community. A rider here would be opportune: Don’t we see this similar situations in so-called democracies? Do people really have power to a party in power through the power of a simple piece of paper? Are you crazy>

Thomas Mann, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute (2008) elaborated on alternation as important aspect of an election during his reflection of the recently conducted 2008 US elections. He argued that Americans were concerned about a number of things including the dismal performance of the economy such as high gas prices, stagnant wages, now economic melt-down, health care insurance coverage and cost, job insecurity and the credit crunch. He added that the American electorate was ‘discouraged and unhappy about the war in Iraq. While these issues were not critical for the selection of candidates within internal party politics, they were decisive in determining the outcome of the general elections as the presidential nominees at the time Barack Obama and John McCain were far apart on them. There is absolutely no doubt that these are some of the issues that persuaded American voters during the November elections to overwhelmingly change from republicans to democrats by voting Obama into office. The American election underlines the importance of election as means for change as a means to resolve felt problems. American politics is not the best in the world. But one thing that is important about them is that they can change. The world’s largest democracy just like the India, is amenable to change, which in itself, is a solution to most of the challenges.

Of course elections do not solve problems immediately. Poverty, for instance, is unlikely to disappear with the announcement of the election results. A country’s negative growth rate does not instantly become positive on the swearing in of a new regime in place of the old corrupt regime. Normally, the poor people remain poor a day after an election and often may remain so for relatively long period after change of regime in popular election. It is important to emphasise this point to avoid inflated expectations from an election. However, in the long-run, the people are bound to benefit from change of regime through an election.

It must be pointed out that elections have easily been abused in the past. Apartheid South Africa also did have elections in which Africans for being African were excluded. One-party states did have elections as the term goes within the one-party system. Even today with the universality of the multiparty system, there are elections that are not elections. Politicians try various tricks to undermine the popular will and therefore access to or remain power whatever the case. We see in Africa that removing an incumbent from office especially the head of state is still merely a dream. Of course President Thabo Mbeki has been removed from office but only towards the end of his term when even him would not see the point to resist the move. Therefore, in talking about elections, one must be clear the elections in point. Elections based on the principle of free political formations in which people are free to associate with each other, to join, freely express themselves in those parties or leave them to join others, is what freedom is made of.

Recently, former Archbishop Desmond Tutu has called for President Robert Mugabe to be asked to leave office and if he refuses to be removed by military means. This is in view of the extremely terrible political and humanitarian situation in that country following ‘elections’ that never were. Assuming the Archbishop was correctly quoted, this is unfortunate. It is unfortunate to advocate change of regime through military intervention. Apart from it being contrary to international law, as seen, for example, by the 2000 African Union (AU) Declaration on Unconstitutional Changes of Government, it could create a very bad precedent. Africa has been through this before and there is absolutely no need to go through it again.  Mugabe has proved to be a tyrant who cares little against his own people. Lives have been lost, people have been tortured their houses demolished without being given an alternative. Mugabe has cheated during elections and even though he lost he is still in power unconcerned with the outcome of those elections. Zimbabwe has become the classical case of the fact that sham elections equals poverty. After the sham elections, as well as the failure to resolve the political impasse in that country, hundreds of millions of people have been driven into  lives of extreme poverty. However, not even this would justify the call for military intervention. Africa especially cannot afford ‘quick-fix’ which will return to haunt her as had already. How long did it take to fight apartheid and colonialism? Why should Africa who spent hundreds of years fighting for freedom now want freedom in Zimbabwe yesterday? Change will come and Zimbabwe is no exception. More than anything else, what is important at this stage is to be patient. Sustained fight through constitutional and democratic means will bring change – lasting change.

Elections are the only way to constitute and remove government in a democracy. It is a sign that a country is developing if it can change government at polls that are regular, genuine, free and fair. Of course these notions are not caste in stone.  Elections in freedom and fairness have been subject of varying interpretations in different jurisdictions. Complicated architecture is growing at the national, regional and global levels to guide states, societies and institutions when in doubt as to what to pronounce. But there is no doubt that political doctrine has often influenced officials responsible for adjudicating disputes based on freedom and fairness of elections particularly where such dispute involves a sitting head of state. Two cases will demonstrate this point. In the 2001 case of Besigye v. Museveni as well as Tsvangrai v. Electoral Commission, there is no doubt the courts decided in favour of the respondent only because in both cases they could not have decided otherwise. These cases illustrate the fact that while important, frameworks and normative standards are not enough in themselves to guarantee freedom and fairness of an election. In the end, the actual determination will be done by man or woman and with what this entails.

Nevertheless, important signs are on the horizon. As alluded to above, the African Union, through the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) whose primary objective is to fight poverty has opted for peaceful transfer of power as the principal means to fight poverty. This recognition is admission that previous efforts failed because governments did not recognize the importance of good governance the core of which is free elections. NEPAD by embracing good governance is acknowledging the fundamental important of genuine elections that are free and fair as a means to development. Under the NEPAD, the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) is going round the continent asking states that have volunteered to expose their records what they have done to promote the holding of elections on a regular basis in freedom and fairness. Only last month, APRM held an extra-ordinary high-level meeting in Cotonou, Benin, at which, among other things, Kenya and Nigeria, the two countries that held controversial elections were asked to lead discussions on conditions that must prevail to have free and fair elections. NEPAD and APRM are important innovations, among other things, meant to promote the principle of elections.

More importantly, the AU in January last year, adopted  the first-ever African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance. Though not yet in force, the Charter is the most comprehensive instrument within the AU on governance specifically elections. One of the most significant contribution it seeks to make is to guide African states on how to hold elections that are truly elections. While it will continue to be their responsibility to conduct elections, AU states will now be required to cooperate as a legal duty with the AU in discharging that responsibility. The African Charter is recognition that part of the reason why Africa is poor is because of unelected government.

Before coming to the specific subject of elections, it is important to acknowledge a historic truism which states that politics is everything. Politics defines everything else and if politics is wrong, everything else is wrong. It is not possible for politics to be right and for everything to be wrong and vice-versa. When politics collapses, everything collapses too. We usually describe unacceptable conduct for instance corruption as ‘politics of poverty’ to drive the point that politics that is permissive of corruption inevitably leads to poverty.

Kwame Nkrumah, first president of Ghana and one of Africa’s strongest Pan-Africanists ‘Seek ye first the political kingdom and all else shall be added onto you’ (Yalae Papa (2006). He was right. It was a clarion call during the liberation struggle for the African nationalists to call on colonial authorities to deliver the ‘political kingdom first’ and the rest will follow later. ‘Political kingdom first’ is a call to get right politics first before everything else. If politics is right, it is unlikely economics will be wrong. A country’s economy is fashioned by principles defined by political authorities. A country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) results from policies fashioned by the poet’s ‘political kingdom’. Similarly, the Gross National Product (GNP), per capita income, rates of employment and literacy, standard of living – all these emanate from decisions of political authorities. Therefore, politics is the means by which economics is defined.

Politics and poverty are related to each other. There is a way in which politics gives rise to poverty and vice versa. Therefore, fixing politics inevitably fixes politics. Since economics derives from politics, fixing the latter inevitably fixes the former. Therefore, attention should not be focused on fixing economics while leaving politics at large. You can have the best economic policies and the best experts to implement those policies but all this will come to nothing if not founded on proper political environment. In most countries, the Governor of the Central Bank is a political appointee. While he or she must be independent in line that the central bank must be independent of the executive, both the Governor and the Bank are a priori political in nature. It is the politician who besides appointing the Governor and other senior officials both at central bank and treasury also defines and lays down the economic policy. Because he has power to appoint, the same politician can disappoint, in fact with the same means he uses to appointee.

Zimbabwe at the moment is an excellent example of how when politics fail, everything else fails. Zimbabwe which has been in political turmoil for over ten years now is for the same reason economically and socially bankrupt. Failure of parties to the Zimbabwe crisis to find permanent solution to their problems translates itself into the world’s highest rate of inflation. The failure of the country’s politics translates into failed educational system in what once used to be a country with the best educational system in Africa. There will be no hospitals and therefore no effective health care system in the country if there is no stable political environment. The break-out of cholera and other diseases is something that frequently happens in most developing countries but political failure increases chances for the outbreak of this dreaded disease. Due to the breakdown of politics, sewage systems that are broken down will not be fixed because there will not be resources to do so. In other words, everything revolves around politics.

But it is equally important to point out the decline in elections in different jurisdictions in recent times. Jeff Jacoby (2004) wrote about ‘The Declining Importance of Election Day’ in the United States. Because of failure by politicians to deliver on election promises including promises on poverty, more and more people are turning their backs against elections as a solution to their problems. In Africa, it shows more patently during by-elections. Not able to enjoy the benefits of democracy, people usually protest by staying away from the polling boots. Therefore, elections as a means to solve society’s problems and challenges are important at the same time are resented.

Author is professor of human rights law at the Center for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria. He writes in his personal  capacity

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