How to waste your ballot on 1 November

William Saunderson-Meyer on the appeal of independent candidates and the problem with them


There’s been much speculation that in next month’s local elections, independent candidates might at last break the two-party logjam of South African politics. Some are putting their money where their mouth is.

The former great black hope of opposition politics, Mmusi Maimane, has staked what’s left of his political reputation on it. His One South Africa Movement is backing 300 independent candidates in 12 municipalities on 1 November. 

At this week’s launch of five of its mayoral candidates, Maimane said that these elections were about “uncapturing” local government from the “shackles of political parties”. South Africa’s political future was with independents because they, alone, are in touch with what matters on the ground.

“Independents are located in communities. Secondly, the independents we are working with have a pledge, and programmes and values. Thirdly, if you want to uncapture local government, then you vote for independent candidates because political parties all have a mandate to capture municipalities,” said Maimane.

OSA sees itself as a future kingmaker. Its stated aim is not only to eat into the support of the existing political parties but to win over the millions of citizens who had given up on voting. 

And OSA has it on the button. In this election particularly, it's not so much about winning converts as it is about overcoming the disillusionment and apathy of former supporters that threatens to drag down voter turnout to its lowest levels yet. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

After all, we have a governing party, the African National Congress, that is despised even by the shrinking number of people who still glumly but loyally turn out to vote for it. We have an official opposition, the Democratic Alliance, that despite its good governance record in the areas it controls, still induces an involuntary shudder of revulsion among the African voters it has to attract to grow.

That leaves disenchanted voters with few options. Aside from the KwaZulu-Natal based, ethnically mobilised Inkatha Freedom Party, only the race-baiting fascists of the Economic Freedom Fighters managed a meaningful performance in the 2016 municipal election. 

There are some new kids on the block. The 2019 general election brought into the equation additional voting alternatives, although none has ignited the popular imagination.

There’s the Freedom Front Plus (which drew just under 2.5% of the vote) and the African Christian Democratic Party (less than 1%). Add in some similarly uninspiring rats and mice: GOOD (whose leader tellingly is a minister in the ANC cabinet); and the Congress of the People (which has been shrinking uninterruptedly since its 2008 launch). 

There are two potential wild cards: ActionSA and the Cape Independence Party. 

CIP believes that the gatvol factor that causes Western Cape residents to dally with the implausible possibility of secession will, this time, translate into votes. In 2019, it got a grand total of 4,473 votes.

In contrast, Herman Mashaba’s ActionSA may have more to support its regional aspirations, in this case in Gauteng. He has a high personal profile and is probably the only political leader who could draw both ANC and DA votes. On the downside, his erratic and volatile performance as mayor of Johannesburg, where he entered into a messy and catastrophic alliance with the EFF, doesn’t engender confidence.

The thin pickings on this electoral smorgasbord make perfectly understandable the sudden enthusiasm for independent candidates. There are a number of reasons, however, why it’s better to stick to voting for a political party, whichever one it might be, rather than an independent.

First, in South Africa, very few independents get elected, except on the rare occasion when they are an en bloc defection of existing councillors. There are considerable advantages to being part of established political organisations in terms of mobilising money and volunteers, as well as providing the backup research and ward support necessary to perform effectively, if elected.

Second, this situation makes vulnerable the few independents who are elected. They struggle to make any meaningful contribution in the face of the monolithic voting mandates of the councillors representing parties. 

When and if they are kingmakers, it’s only a brief interlude in the sun. Whether it's through the blandishments of rank and real power, or whether it's from frustration and loneliness at their existence as the lone cricket in the thorn tree, they are generally soon ingested by one or another of the parties.

In any case, king making is rarely a noble business, as anyone who remembers the shady dealings that went on 15 years ago in the Cape Town city council, where “independents” were bought and sold like slave market concubines of old, as the ANC and DA vied ruthlessly for control.

Third, whatever their many faults, political parties play an oversight role that is entirely absent — except when it comes to re-election in five years time — among independent councillors. There are no sanctions, no threat of expulsion, no spectre of ostracisation by former colleagues. 

Independents are entirely free spirits. Once elected, they can, and do, waft wherever they wish and can renege on promises without remorse or retribution.

Maimane tried to address this troubling reality with the slate of candidates that has OSA’s backing. If they behave badly or perform poorly, he warned this week, there would be consequences.

“Let me warn you,” he said, “Today, we sign a pledge that the people shall live, and the people shall govern. It is the people who nominated you, and believe you me, if you fail those people, we will be the first ones to come and work with the people to remove you. We are not going to wait for five years.”

This “or else” warning sounds impressive but is meaningless. What does the “pledge that the people shall live, and the people shall govern” even mean? How is he going to remove non-performing councillors prior to the next election?

It’s all hot air. Maimane has zero control over what the candidates backed by OSA do or say. They cannot be suspended or expelled from OSA for the simple reason that they don’t belong to it. 

OSA’s opportunistic coalition is chaos in the making. If Maimane wants to exercise the kind of oversight that is the norm for a political party, with its caucuses, its rules and regulations, its detailed principles and policies, he will have to form a political party. For some reason, he is loathe to do so.

So, whither the disenchanted voter? We all have to come to terms with the unfortunate truth that there are no perfect political parties. 

While it’s no doubt satisfying to proclaim on social media one’s unalloyed moral virtue by rejecting all the parties as being fatally flawed and undeserving of one’s support, to vote for an independent candidate — even if he or she has the Pastor Maimane stamp of approval — is most likely a wasted ballot.

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