“If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.”

— Thomas Jefferson, 1789


South Africa: The concept of participation is certainly not a new one in the ideologies of redistribution. Over the years the traditional distinction between ‘economic participation’ (usually in the form of citizens achieving their potential through self-employment or having a job) and political participation (conventionally through voting, political parties and lobbying) has gradually begun to dissolve.


Modern society now sees the citizen participatory approaches scaled up from a combined political-economic paradigm. Due to this there now exists’ a gradual convergence of citizen engagement in policy formulation and implementation. As a result of this convergence and good governance initiatives, citizens now have a broadened political participation as they find themselves in search for new, innovative, and more direct ways through which they may influence their governments and hold them accountable. It goes without saying that democracy increases the expectations of citizens.

Plausible in theory the above statement might be, in practice the reality has come to be that, more often than not, participation in political processes is neither active nor free, resulting in a growing crisis of legitimacy in the relationship between citizens and the institutions that affect their lives. Globally, citizens speak of mounting cynicism towards governments, based on concerns about corruption, lack of responsiveness to the needs of the poor and the absence of a sense of connection with elected representatives and bureaucrats.

From an African point-of-view citizens have become accustomed to alienation from their governments mainly due to little alternatives available in tackling injustice, criminality, abuse and corruption by institutions. Consequently, citizens now lack confidence in state institutions even though they still express their willingness to partner with them under appropriate conditions including more transparent and just rules. Consequently, this goes on to show that in Africa the people’s general dissatisfaction with institutions relates largely to a lack of platforms for participation and to issues regarding accountability.

For South Africa, isn’t the fact that we can all choose who will govern us from a wide array of parties one of the great achievements of the fight against apartheid? Yes and No. Some scholars have stressed that the vote is an essential tool for citizens who want a share in the decisions which affect them.


This explicitly speaks to those at the bottom of the pyramid, who find it almost impossible to be heard without the lever which the vote offers – the tired cliche ‘you cannot eat democracy’ ignores the fact that many people around the world would have much less to eat if they did not have the vote; it is the vote which enables them to influence the policies which might make it possible for them to eat. However I’ve come to the conclusion that the idea of “multiparty elections” in particular as a means of enhancing state responsiveness to the needs of its citizens is an oligarchic myth.

The notion of a multi-party democracy leads people to believe they have choice in political decisions and thereby maintains the political status-quo. “An outcome of this is that political competition becomes the manipulation of the polity by the incumbent and the opportunists who take advantage of the loopholes in the “rules of the game” for purposes of self-aggrandizement and not for the benefit of societies.” Such problematic outcomes inevitably lead to sham elections or rigged elections. In Africa for example this proves to be true due to the fact that in two-decades since 1990, only a handful of party or state leaders have emerged as worthy victors in the electoral process and stepped down from power thereafter accordingly. “The few leaders who stepped down include Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, and recently Ghana’s Jerry Rawlings.”  Such realities serve as substantiation to the fact that, while the poor have a vote, they rarely are able to use it to ensure that they have a voice. With the country about to embark on another election – will this election be any different? Yes, but not yet sufficiently to make a huge difference.

This election will be the most competitive in our history. The ANC is facing significant dissatisfaction among its voters, while the nobility of the Republic of Cape Town (DA) seems to be consumed by internal divisions and a rather hostile media. Perhaps most important for the poor, parties are now vigorously competing for their votes – significantly, the DA now find itself canvassing support in the “bantustans” surrounding the Kaapstad metropolis. Interestingly though the poor people are gradually beginning show some character in using elections to show their dissatisfaction – case-in-point being the ANC losing local by-elections in Marikana after the massacre there and in Nkandla after media reports on Msholozi’s spending spree on his digs. On the other hand, hall of famers the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) joining a long list of happy basque independence guerrilla movements such as Che Guevara; the Black Panthers; the Provisional Irish Republican Army; the ETA— with their berets over hoods, seem determined to keep shit fresh. As a new political party, Juju and the lads have generated both excitement and criticism in a short space of time. Preaching the gospel of radicalism the EFF’s commitment to anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism and Fanonianism sets it apart from the gaggle of parties vying for the political centre, and clearly its message has gained traction, especially amongst the youth.

Amidst all the excitement and changes we are seeing in the political sphere it’s best we don’t get too excited, for the change is only partial. There are already signs that the ANC will not face as much of a challenge in townships and shack settlements as much of the media hype suggests. The DA, seems to be now silent on the 30 percent target of the vote it had set itself, now just trying to maintain. As for the new parties, Agang never made inroads on the ground – which is why its leader was willing to join the DA’s list – and in retrospect the militant EFF might be good at arriving late at protests they did not organise, but are yet to show that they have any organisation among the poor rather than among the ambitious ‘nine-to-fivers’ young people who are its natural base. On another note, recent developments around the National Union of Mineworker’s of SA’s (NUMSA) pending schism from COSATU could make this the last election in-which such hurdles impeding the choices of the poor are a factor. If NUMSA goes ahead with plans to build a social movement uniting workers and the poor outside the workplace, this could be a vital spur to organising the poor. If this initiative prompts the establishment of a party, the electoral choices of the poor will expand significantly.

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If there exists’ a general consensus that the ability to choose is crucial to the operation of any proper democratic system, it would be difficult to describe what has happened in most African states in recent years as exercises in democracy. Too much emphasis has been placed on multi-party elections and questions have not been raised about the character of the post-colonial state in Africa. The electorate has practically little to choose from since the competing groups have no substantial policy alternatives to offer. Thus, the holding of multi-party elections only gives voters voting without choosing. “In societies already rent by ethnic and social cleavages, and with no clear political platform presented to voters, voting patterns inevitably will reflect ethnic and other primordial loyalties rather than a true exercise in democratic preferment.”

Africa finds itself in the midst of trying to find an enduring political system; while this is so I believe that neither the problem nor the answer rests in either a single or multi-party system of government. “The truth is that even in the advanced democracies what actually exists is what has been termed “part-time democracy.” The rationale behind democracy in contemporary society is the belief that every sane adult is entitled to an equal say in the conduct of public affairs. Every one, no matter the level of his/her intelligence, education, or socio-economic status, is entitled to an equal voice in deciding how they should be governed and who should hold effective power. But in most democracies, the voice of the people is heard only once every four, five or even seven years, in elections in which voters choose their executive and/or legislative leaders, and in which most of the electorate do not possess the ability to present themselves as candidates .


As a result, for the majority of the people the test of a functioning democratic system is not in the mere ability to exercise the franchise once every four or five years but in how the operation of government affects their daily lives. We dare say that the voice of the people is hardly a determining factor in the formation of policy. “The practice of politics in Africa’s post-colonial state where the exercise of power is little more than a pursuit of primitive accumulation does nothing to enhance the situation.[3]” Little thought is given to popular empowerment. Most states are unable to offer even the most basic services to their people. There is only little access to education, health services are poor and the people have only the most minimal access to safe water, sanitary facilities or even leisure. To regard the democratic incorporation of such people merely in terms of being able to vote or be voted for, either in a single or multi-party system, is plain deception. This time around, the upcoming election is likely to bring new possibilities for the poor – but not enough to ensure anything like the influence on decisions to which democracy entitles them.