A tale of two elections

William Saunderson-Meyer compares and contrasts the UK and RSA polls in 2019


2019 has been a vintage year for watershed elections. In South Africa, the African National Congress — despite a dismal decade of decline and destruction — was handed yet another five-year blank cheque, albeit by a significantly lower majority of “only” 57% of the vote.

In Britain, the Conservative Party — despite nine years of flailing economic ineffectuality, of a failed coalition and of a deadlocked minority government — came back from the dead to claim the biggest Tory majority since Margaret Thatcher in 1987. It also redrew the geopolitical map of the nation, with what the Brits still quaintly call the “working-class” vote, deserting the Labour Party in droves and rather improbably allowing the Conservatives the opportunity to style their new administration as “The People’s Government”.

Society’s problems are always more complex than our glib leaders are willing to admit. And while politicians may differ in their local colouring, worldwide they share the same general characteristics of being willing to contemplate any action, no matter how base, in order to acquire and retain power.  So it is not really surprising that there are parallels between last week’s general election in Britain and our own one of May this year.

Not the least of these similarities is that the leaders of both winning parties are new at the helm. Cyril Ramaphosa and Boris Johnson alike had to first win bloody internecine battles for the party leadership.

In SA, to an electorate bloodied and bowed by a decade of rampant corruption, Ramaphosa successfully cast himself as the good knight who could be counted on to slay the dragon of state capture. His victory would herald in a “new dawn” of good governance and economic recovery.

In Britain, to an electorate fed up with more than three years of political gridlock and a bitterly partisan divisiveness in public life, Johnson successfully cast himself as the man who, at a stroke, could end the misery by slashing through the Gordian knot of Brexit. No longer weighed down by its European Union baggage of silly rules against things like bendy bananas, the United Kingdom would, at last, have its national mojo restored.

Both Cyril and Boris triumphed against official oppositions that were ineffectually led by men who replaced tried and tested policies with their own personal ideological variations — in the process alienating vast swathes of traditional supporters.

Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane had ditched old liberal precepts in favour of what he thought would be electorally more popular race-based strategies. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s hard-left socialism turned its back on the social democrat-style policies that had given Labour 13 consecutive years of power between 1997 and 2010.

Neither would survive the crushing reversals. In the case of the DA, it was the first drop in voting share since 1994. In the case of Labour, it was the worst election result since 1935.

For politicians, resignation is hard to do, even when faced with a horde of angry and disappointed party colleagues. They rarely go gently.

Following the DA’s poor performance, Maimane cheered the decision of “racist voters” to vote for the Freedom Front Plus and intimated that the DA was better off without them. It was only when an internal review, consisting of party luminaries appointed by Maimane, delivered a scathing verdict on his performance, did he resign months later.

Corbyn, too, has a deep, delusional streak. Despite the stinging verdict of the voters, Corbyn insisted that the Labour manifesto had “huge public support”. He would step down, he said, but only in early March, after he had guided the party through a “period of reflection”.

When the bunting comes down and the celebratory champagne bottles have been cleared away, reality reasserts itself. In politics, the only consumer guarantee is buyer’s remorse.

Minority voters who had rallied to the ANC cause in order to “give Cyril a chance” are finding the supposedly pragmatic Mr Ramaphosa to be unpleasantly hardline on the issues that most worry them: property rights and land expropriation without compensation; the dismantling of private health care and the imposition of an untested national health insurance plan. And far from being the caped crusader who smashes corruption, Ramaphosa has had to tread cautiously, lest those deprived of state feeding troughs engineer his recall as party leader.

British voters who are at present in awe of Boris’s ability to channel his inner Churchill are likely to find that while Brexit is now assured, the tumult is just beginning. Aside from the economic turmoil that will affect both Europe and the UK, as new trading arrangements are established, there are also new areas of political fallout that threaten.

For one, the United Kingdom threatens to come apart. In Northern Ireland, the general election has left the unionists in a minority and, with Brexit rewriting borders, the issue of a single Ireland is again stirring its bloody loins.

And the Scottish Nationalists, having argued that leaving Europe would be disastrous for Britain, are now implausibly arguing that leaving Britain will be good for Scotland. In the same way that the Remainers wanted the 2016 Brexit referendum rerun until they got the result they liked, the SNP want the “once in a generation” Scottish independence referendum of 2014 rerun until they get the result that they want. Brace yourself for a rerun of all the tedious squabbling of Brexit, except dressed in tartan rather than the Union flag.

What happens in SA and British elections, despite their waning global statures, remains interesting to the world. SA is still a major player on the African continent and, at the least, is a continuing case study in the perils of democratic transition. The UK is still the world’s fifth-biggest economy and the second-largest English-speaking nation, with subtle but effective channels of historical influence.

Contrary to the European Council president Donald Tusk’s assertion that Brexit will reduce the UK to “second-rate” status, its future decline is far from inevitable. And the fortunes of its contrariness in going against the flow towards European political integration will be carefully watched by other disenchanted EU groups and nations.

In contrast to the UK, SA’s challenge is not to avoid becoming second-rate, but to recover from having done so. That’s a far more difficult task.

SA’s majority remains perversely determined, mainly for long-dead apartheid reasons, to support a party that is exacerbating their economic suffering and stoking social unrest. The majority of Brits are determined, mainly for reasons of immigration and identity, to break ties with a Europe that has benefited them enormously in economic terms.

We truly do get the governments we deserve.

The Jaundiced Eye column returns on January 11, 2020
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