Local elections and the illusion of choice

One of democracy’s most attractive features is choice. When electorates pick up their ballot papers on Wednesday for South Africa’s 2016 local elections, they will see a list of parties, some they have heard of, others perhaps not.

But as we do, or do not, cast our votes, eNCA news analyst, Angelo Fick, asks us to remember that against the backdrop of a neo-liberal globe, class inequality continues to pervade South Africa and the rest of the world – eroding any real sense of democracy or choice.

“For some of us, regardless of the outcome of the August 3rd polls, our lives will continue as usual. Our investment portfolio’s might take a dent like it did in December 2015,  our pension funds might be gutted, but we will continue to eat nice lunches, expensive coffees, drink delightful South African slave traders’ wine, and proceed to consume larger and larger numbers of our sentient fellow beings on the planet as if nothing has happened. We will, to quote the misapprehended, misunderstood, misreported, Marie Antoinette who never said it, ‘We will eat cake’.”

“We live in a bourgeoisie republic”, says Fick. As much as we drabble on about our rainbow nation, the post-Apartheid system really only benefits the privileged few, such as us that populate social media where, according to Fick, you will not find the majority of South Africans.

So when we talk of equality, the question should not be “Are we equal?” but “How are we equal?” And, perhaps even more importantly: “How are we not?”

IMG_0021
Angelo Fick talks to Politics students from Rhodes University about the pitfalls of our current democratic system last week.

Fick says there is growing evidence that people are not just feeling disaffected by but are starting to actively oppose the current political and economic system. This is because over the past 20 years, labour security, guarantee of income and trade union strength have steadily eroded. This has, un-coincidently as Fick suggests, corresponded with the introduction of post-Apartheid neo-liberal capitalism.

Two of neo-liberal capitalism’s manifestations in South Africa are labour-brokering (the outsourcing of workers) and capitalism’s individualistic culture, which weakens trade unions. According to Fick, the individualistic system encourages people to fight for their individual rights instead of engaging in collective action, such as joining trade unions.

With trade unions too weak to challenge socioeconomic inequality, political freedoms are undermined. As Fick says, democracy becomes something that only happens every five years, and even then people find themselves in places in South Africa where they cannot vote or do not have the time because they are working.

“…it’s easy to suggest that the choice is between the [political party colours].”

Throughout the country, disillusionment is rife. According to Fick, more and more students, for example, are finding that the democratic trope of education leading to liberation is false, especially for working class students who are excluded from privileged social networks.

“Liberation from what?” asks Fick, “Because it if is liberation from the Apartheid regime then that’s a given. If it’s liberation from colonialism, yes quite. [But] if it’s liberation from imperialism, it’s a resounding no.”

This is because so many students end up working for multinational corporations. “On the international [and national] level, you have corporations and the rise of leaders speaking the neoliberal language,” he says, “Corporations are just the front of the imperial project. Relations of corruption do not only exist in government. There is also business with business, like firms that mark-up staple bread.”

“[This is why] inequality will not be shifted by a vote. The [democratic capitalist] system is in place. Parties that play the system are playing and reinstituting the system,” says Fick, “Don’t look at their manifestos, but their records. Political parties are hardly the solutions to political problems.”

According to Fick, it therefore shouldn’t surprise the middle class that more poor people are not voting and that voting is more popular in urban areas.

“The middle class is wrong in thinking that political party loyalty only happens in lower classes and thinking that only they make rational choices. Poor people are [just] opting out of the system, but if you vote outside of democracy, democracy punishes you.”

Perhaps, he suggests, how and why we vote needs to change. “Voting once every few years is like buying a pack of condoms and thinking that you’re practicing safer sex,” he says, “What have you been doing [politically in the meantime]?”

voting_day_1
South Africa’s 2016 Municipal Elections take place on Wednesday 3 August.

The real question is not about whether you pick up a ballot paper and draw a cross, the real question is: What are you willing to give up? Because the truth is, when confronted with the prospect of real change, Fick suggests the middle class will answer saying, “We like the system as it is.” After all, it was designed for us:

“For some of us, regardless of the outcome of the August 3rd polls, our lives will continue as usual. Our investment portfolio’s might take a dent like it did in December 2015,  our pension funds might be gutted, but we will continue to eat nice lunches, expensive coffees, drink delightful South African slave traders’ wine, and proceed to consume larger and larger numbers of our sentient fellow beings on the planet as if nothing has happened. We will, to quote the misapprehended, misunderstood, misreported, Marie Antoinette who never said it, ‘We will eat cake’.”

“..inequality will not be shifted by a vote.”

“Democracy is precisely about making us feel free when we are not,” says Fick, “[So] it’s easy to suggest that the choice is between the [political party colours].” In reality, however, this choice is false. No matter which box you tick this week, you are voting within, and therefore for, a capitalist democratic system and the values, norms and inequality that comes with it.

You can listen to Angelo Fick’s speech here.

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