The governing party faces its biggest test yet in 2019 elections

The storm brewing around Cyril Ramaphosa's campaign to become ANC president at Nasrec, which was allegedly also funded by Bosasa, is diluting his anti-graft image, says the writer.
The storm brewing around Cyril Ramaphosa's campaign to become ANC president at Nasrec, which was allegedly also funded by Bosasa, is diluting his anti-graft image, says the writer.
Image: Brian Witbooi

The 2019 elections are the most significant of the democratic era in SA. Not only because the ANC faces a real threat of having its dominance eroded but also because the nature of the contest has changed.

SA is a young but robust democracy because it is buttressed by a constitution that espouses and entrenches the intrinsic values of democracy - freedom, equality and justice - with the guarantee and protection of civil and political rights.

We have been able to withstand the tumults of the past decades because of these intrinsic values and the strong system of checks and balances that accompanies them. Also, SA has been more successful than other states that have transitioned from authoritarianism to democracy in establishing institutions that form a bulwark against threats to democracy.

As important as the intrinsic values of democracy are and the system of checks and balances brought about by our brand of constitutional democracy is, it's not enough to sustain our democracy.

Constitutions and institutions do not maintain themselves. People and societies do. The biggest threat to our democracy is the erosion or undermining of a democratic political culture.

Developments of past weeks and months should have made it clear to most that we need to disabuse ourselves of analysing politics as a quest to discover the saints and the saviours among us. This is an exercise as futile as searching for flying unicorns.

Across the political landscape and party colours, there are some worrying trends that are a warning to the country's electorate that there is no other time to be more vigilant about the choices it makes than now.

Given that the contest is really between the big three - ANC, DA and EFF - it is apt to cast the spotlight on them. No disrespect to smaller parties. The intricacies of state capture are unraveling at the Zondo commission, painting the picture of a conflicted and compromised governing party.

ANC leaders and functionaries have been caught up in the web of manipulating state machinery to serve narrow interests whose only purpose is to plunder state coffers.

Revelations outside of the commission, including the storm brewing around President Cyril Ramaphosa's campaign to become ANC president at the party's 54th elective congress at Nasrec, are further diluting his "New Dawn", anti-graft image.

The EFF and DA have seized on this. However, they are also mired in their own crisis of credibility. Whether its EFF leaders Julius Malema and Floyd Shivambu being implicated in VBS looting, or the DA having to face up to its own governance failings in municipalities and backlash over chief whip John Steenhuisen's lack of a post-matric qualification, the opposition is against the ropes.

The narrative that they are more desirable as an alternative to the ANC is not as easy a sell as it used to be.

That these issues are coming to light is good for the electorate. Voters can make decisions from an informed position, having the facts about the true character of each of the big three parties.

The EFF's attacks on the media because it has now intensified its scrutiny on the young party reinforce the view that this is a party of demagogues who are willing to undermine the edifice of democracy, which includes freedom of expression and the press.

The use of identity politics to cast aspersions on certain groups on ethnic, racial and nationality lines, whether it's blaming foreigners for crime or making a clarion call to "our people" on the issue of the economy and land, is a tactic gaining currency.

Identity is important as we work collectively to redress past injustices. But using it for cheap politicking and point-scoring is setting the nation up for conflict and strife.

While it is understandable that political parties in a campaign season will be more concerned about winning the elections, democracy is bigger than elections. Nevertheless, how the electoral contest is conducted can have grave implications for the practice of democracy after elections.

Just look over to the US.

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