22 May 2024 | Story Prof Sethulego Matebesi | Photo Kaleidoscope Studios
Prof Sethulego Matebesi
Prof Sethulego Matebesi, Associate Professor and Academic Head of Department of Sociology, University of the Free State.

Opinion article by Prof Sethulego Matebesi, Associate Professor and Academic Head of Department of Sociology, University of the Free State

South Africa has entered a pivotal stage of the 2024 General Elections. Aside from the usual drama surrounding electoral politicking ─ the twists and turns of new political parties and election campaigns ─ the forthcoming elections have yielded theatrical spectacles that have kept us intrigued over the past few months.


Depending on how far back you want to reflect your aesthetic lens, the drama began with the furore over the spike in the number of young people who registered as new voters. In light of this, political parties had run relentless campaigns targeting young voters. There is a deeper issue here, however. Over the past three decades, voter apathy among young people in the country has been a knotty and vexing challenge that many scholars and policymakers have grappled with. What is provided ─ almost constantly ─ by the youth as a reason for the general apathy is a distrust of formal politics.

Here, I contend that while young people may see voting as trivial, especially in comparison to their purported different and new forms of engaging with democracy, I grapple with understanding how they will be staking a claim in the future of a country they will inherit.

New entrants the harsh reality of personality-driven politics

There is one thing South Africans are certain of about the elections: the proliferation of new political parties. Insofar as this year’s elections are concerned, of the independent candidates and newly registered parties expected to contest the elections ─ including Build One SA (Bosa) and Rise Mzansi — it is the emergence of uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) Party, backed by former President Jacob Zuma, and former African National Congress (ANC) Secretary-General Ace Magashule’s African Congress for Transformation (ACT), that ushered in a new era of unprecedented opposition politics in the democratic and political space.

Ironically, the MK Party, whose leader has been blamed for state capture and many other of the country’s failures, has enjoyed prominent winning streaks in the courts to ensure that Zuma is not removed from its parliamentary lists, and the party continues to use the name and logo of uMkhonto weSizwe that the ANC claimed belonged to its military wing.

Given Zuma and Magashule’s complex and frosty relationship with the ANC and their open hostility towards President Cyril Ramaphosa, these populist leaders idealised the forthcoming elections as a thrilling adventure with countless opportunities to provide a viable alternative to the ANC. For example, the MK Party’s radical socialist and conservative policies will ensure the state has almost everything. On the other hand, ACT, which is set to launch its manifesto soon, is still determined to unseat the governing ANC and disrupt the status quo, especially in the Free State.

These are exciting developments as both leaders were once at the helm of the ANC and are now promising a systematic political blueprint that will bridge the gap between the state and citizens.

Nevertheless, regardless of strong rebukes of these former leaders by the ANC Secretary-General, Fikile Mbalula, that had the unintended consequence of illustrating how the party protects its leaders at the expense of advancing national priorities, this leads me to another, and often ignored point: the harsh realities of elections.

For one, elections come and go, but personalities remain. And with the MK Party and ACT being led by shrewd leaders with almost unconstrained power, it is unsurprising that the two parties are already facing internal strife.

In the US it took Americans a while to realise that a current and former president would compete for the White House for the first time in that country’s history. This reality for American voters is that a win for either Joe Biden or Donald Trump will yet again yield one of the oldest presidents in the history of the US.

Generally, a harsh reality for many new political parties will hit the hardest when they realise that beneath all the glamour and shine of election campaigns are many other variables besides political rhetoric that determine election outcomes. I reckon this is a lesson learned by the two major opposition parties ─ the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

The DA national flag saga a misstep in tactics

As the tumultuous clock of the high-stakes elections ticks on, the DA decided to provide its own twist to the political theatre through its advertisement featuring the burning of the South African flag.

The DA’s provocative move, intended to make a strong statement about the party’s view on the performance of the ANC, has backfired and caused outrage among most citizens. The DA’s response that their advert was well-intentioned is of even more significant concern.

In a country already fraught with racial tension and polarisation, using intentions as a blanket justification for disrespectful actions towards national symbols sets a dangerous precedent. Resorting to such extreme measures to capture attention illuminates a lack of understanding of the far-reaching consequences of such actions.

As the curtain is about to close on campaigns, it is more important than ever that citizens and political parties approach national symbols with the reverence and respect they deserve.

Institutional experts can be found at: https://www.ufs.ac.za/media/leading-researchers

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