Every political party has a refrain it uses to jolt its supporters into a certain mood. Some parties use the refrain “Viva”; others “Amandla”, and so it goes. They also have nuanced nicknames for party members such as “comrade”, “fighter”, “servant”.
The Electoral Commission of SA (IEC) has, in recent times, also developed for an entirely different purpose a refrain called “aberration”. This term, aberration, seems like a standard answer to explain away any concern raised about what may be going wrong or right.
One should not be surprised if in future, people at the IEC call each other “aberration” as a nuanced nickname. The word means an anomaly, a deviation, divergence, abnormality, irregularity, variation, digression, freak, etcetera.
The 2019 election appears to have been a national aberration. It started off with the obvious anomaly of even freaks announcing their ascendency to the Union Buildings, as a plethora of parties sprang into existence, accompanied by crazy kinds of promises made to voters.
The tally of parties that registered in mushroom style rose to 48 on the national ballot paper. It seems that an opportunity had arrived and power was there for the taking. It sounded like a highly contested election in the making.
The context was obvious disenchantment at the goings-on under the government of the day. The more revelations of malfeasance emerged, the more political parties emerged to contest the elections.
Those establishing these political parties and those aspiring to power saw an anomaly in the electorate. These hopefuls imagined voters not sleeping the whole night in anticipation of escorting new leadership such as theirs to the Union Buildings through the ballot box.
In a sense, there was this euphoria waiting to happen. And happen it did.
In true aberration style, the IEC announced its readiness to deliver a free and fair election, which it had been planning for five years. Everyone had to believe that it was ready to hold an election pretty much on call. At one point, the IEC even sounded a bit impatient with time.
Then came crunch time. The election date was proclaimed and the season of madness began in earnest. Politicians began trading insults as if they were at an auction. Political expectations and temperatures started to rise. All the while predictions were that this would be the most highly contested election.
The ruling party in particular went into overdrive in the face of a clear loss of public trust. Winning back the public’s love and trust became the ANC’s primary objective. Then the official opposition, the DA, with equal vigour, started a campaign of placing warning signs everywhere, even in toilets, to alert voters to the dangers of returning the ruling party to power.
Every other political party climbed on the bandwagon, sounding similar warnings. You could be forgiven for thinking that things were so bad, the country was coming to an end. In reality, all these parties shared one goal: to take voting fodder to the trough for easy consumption.
Meanwhile, the aberration team was assuring the nation about its state of readiness. This, as certain communities chose their own way of doing the aberration thing by embarking on a blackmailing campaign for votes. The environment gradually became toxic.
Because the hype of removing the ruling party from power seemed to affect political party leaders even in their dreams, unrealistic expectations became the norm. Every political party leader was heading to the Union Buildings come inauguration day.
Talk began about which was a suitable coalition party – and in aberration style, one contender already allocated himself to the deputy president post. Imaginations had become real. People truly believed, slept and dreamt their wishes to enter the Union Buildings. These imaginations may soon cost this nation a country if not properly managed.
When actual elections started via special voting, cracks started to show in the IEC’s actual state of readiness. It was at this stage that ‘aberration’ became the buzzword. Those who tried to point out potential problems were dismissed with one word: aberration. The aberration increased as elections got into full swing. Besides the areas beset by violence and protest action which affected voting, more and more aberrations started to occur.
As usual, mostly unconvincing explanations were provided.
The inevitable resulted. Those who started to smell the smoke began to point out flaws in the way the election was being conducted. Problems began piling up. The reputed good relations and structures put in place beforehand began to be ignored as more parties – some of them brand new – questioned the election’s credibility.
In the five other national elections hosted by the IEC over the past 25 years, albeit in different contexts, things had never gone this far.
Apathy – another aberration in the run-up to this week’s election – became hugely influential as voter turnout was less than impressive. Then came allegations of double voting, accusations that the indelible ink was ineffective, and other aberrations.
Some parties are suggesting that the election was not that credible. They may or may not be bitter losers. No matter; the net effect is the possibility of the IEC’s hitherto unblemished reputation taking a knock in the eyes of the nation – and globally. The IEC has been instrumental in training its counterparts in many parts of the world. That its own abilities could be in question took us all by surprise.
Three huge aberrations
However the results turn out, Elections 2019 will be associated with three serious aberrations from which this nation may never recover, unless something drastic is done.
The first is the fact that the vote is gradually becoming irrelevant as a tool of democracy and accountability. Many threats not to vote – which were carried out – must leave South Africans scared. Trading votes for protest action during an election throws into question the credibility of that election. It may just mean that many communities attach no significance or value to an election. The possibility exists that they will, in future, simply tell those elected that they do not recognise them.
The second serious aberration is that this election was less about a future and more about the past. Whatever happened in the past seems to have left South Africans feeling trapped. Issues of race and class were more pronounced in this election than ever.
The past has caught up with our nation; it seems we must first deal with this past before we can move into the future. The sadness of this may soon take on an even more sombre note when some begin talking of “the 25 wasted years”. The low voter turnout may be a cry over these wasted years.
Social cohesion is no longer; we may not even be worthy of being called a nation. The election campaign revealed that even those who aspire to lead this nation hardly have a single objective in common. This election became about “what I did for you” and “what you didn’t do for them”, instead of what the nation needs.
The third aberration is that the nature and extent of the questioning of the credibility of this election, whether justified or not, presents an opportunity for chaos and anarchy.
The last thing we need right now to add to our distress is the creation of a constitutional crisis. Manipulation of processes is always a distinct possibility. The danger is less about that and more about the perception of a manipulated election becoming a reality. With an army of angry, poor and desperate people out there, care must be taken not to ignite a fire we cannot extinguish. Perceptions can at times be more real than reality itself.
Often election campaigns are toxic and provocative. Supporters are made to believe in things that are not real. Hopes are raised and divisions created. The IEC is supposed to allow the electorate to be the arbiter. If it loses the trust and confidence of the electorate, a constitutional crisis results.
Opportunities are created for those whose selfish interests are hidden behind a pretext of public interest. The current situation may redefine the concept of free and fair elections. At a time like this, we miss a matriarch of this country – Dr Brigalia Bam, erstwhile IEC chair. That she had to retire is a national aberration.
Mannya is an advocate and a former civil servant
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