by Christopher McMichael, Mahala
I ran as an independent candidate in the local Makana Muncipality
elections (Ward 12), a newly demarcated voting zone, including Rhodes
University, in May this year. Representing the Students for Social
Justice (SSJ), a recently formed non-hierarchical campus-based
organisation, supported by the Unemployed Peoples Movement and the
Democratic Left Front. On voting day, the DA won. I managed 130 votes.
It may not sound like a lot but in actuality a bunch of students,
without money or the support of a political party, missed coming second
in the election (and beating the ANC) by just 8 votes.
Being on the campaign trail revealed just how clownish, myopic and degenerate local politics really is.
Why did we do it? Well, the Arab Spring revealed how young people all
over the world are organising in a truly democratic way to determine
the future, inspiring us to get creative in our own local context.
According to our manifesto: “The idea is simple but radical: politics
should not be about top-down plans where leaders decide what your
problems are for you, get your vote and then proceed to do whatever they
want to. Democracy must be about the people it claims to represent.
Politics is not some magic code spoken only by some elite squad of
professionals: it belongs to you. This is about people talking together
and working things out.”
Although it was under-reported in the media, other people had the
same idea: according to the IEC there was a record number of 748
independent candidates registered in this year’s election. Until 13
April 2011 one of them was Andries Tatane…
Here are the nine most important things I learned on the campaign trail.
1. Politicians aren’t necessarily the best people for their job.
When I began campaigning, I was told I had no chance against the
other candidates (the DA and ANC). I imagined they were titans. Truly
impressive people. But they weren’t. Not at all. They were vicious to
each other. The DA was especially paranoid. The late arrival of IEC
ballots was a plot to cheat the DA out of victory. So they told me. The
lack of lighting in the counting room, one of the studios in Rhodes’
Drama Department, was planned by the municipality. The ANC had a dual
strategy. They called us, the Students for Social Justice, a well funded
third force, a movement of “white supremacists and black traitors”.
They also tried to enrol me in a vaguely described “alliance’’ against
our “common enemy’’, the DA. This boilerplate Machivellian scheming
would have been a bit more convincing if it didn’t take place in a bar.
This kind of farcical, wasteful intrigue at the municipal scale can only
get more ridiculous the further up you go. Provincial, national,
geopolitical stages for petty projects: albeit with bigger budgets and
2. Politicians are possibly deranged.
I heard some stupid shit on the campaign trail. I heard AZAPO
supporters described as “monkeys”. Another candidate didn’t want to be
perceived as “bum chums” with Rhodes. Because I wasn’t a threat, people
from both big parties felt comfortable letting me in on their barely
concealed prejudices. The gold medal for bad behaviour goes to the ANC
campaign. Jeff, the governing party’s candidate, went with a
so-crazy-it-might-just-work approach to the main public debate. He was
petulant, cantankerous and wildly xenophobic. Jeff was so awful my
references to the Terminator movies and general self-conscious-shiftiness made me look like Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address in comparison.
The ANC thought an academic would wow the student populace. They
never understood this ward. If they had run someone younger and in touch
we would have not have come so close to beating them.
3. Lying is a force which gives us meaning.
Local politicians use so much doublespeak, lying seems to the
preferred medium. Mendacity overflowed. Ridiculous and contradictory
promises were made to win support. Surprise, surprise. There was an
almost sociopathic insistence on never admitting culpability. A talent
for evasion runs right through the political establishment. When the
Makana bucket system was exposed and buckets brought right up to the
front door of the municipal office, officials literally hid in their
offices and called the police.
The DA accused the ANC of lying and “massaging” the facts during the
public debate. But Fargher, the DA candidate, kept crowing about a “100%
success record in municipalities we take over”. Residents of
Blikkiesdorp and Hangberg may disagree.
4. There’s stuff you just can’t say.
Acceptable political discourse is limited to service delivery;
promising a better life for all to come. Just wait and see. It’s also
okay to call opponents immoral and racist. But there’s stuff you just
can’t talk about. Party funding is off limits. There are no laws in
place in this country making parties disclose their funding streams. We
just don’t know who is bribing political parties for favours. And you
can’t talk about it.
During an SABC debate on corruption every party agreed that the
looting of public funds should be punished by jail time or even Taliban
style Sharia law. I suggested public funds aren’t exactly in good hands
given the World Cup: R70 Billion spent and FIFA going home with R23.5
billion. I also pointed out that each party tried to out-do each other
in cheerleading the supposed trickledown benefits during the build-up.
Which barely materialized (and weren’t supposed to). I was ignored.
During another debate, I suggested no party will challenge giant
polluters or the mineral-energy complex in this country. Nothing. The
same again when I asked if the SAPS may be out of control, given too
much leeway to be thugs given the daily difficulty of the job. Very loud
5. Nothing but a game.
Join a party, learn to say the right things and work your way up the
ladder. That’s the game. Young members of both the ANC and the DA take
it very seriously. One ruling party member told me that I would be sick
with all the women, booze and maybe even awarded a minor position, at
some point, if I helped them with their “DA problem”. The ANC crew would
get rowdy for no reason at all. They were always contradicting
themselves: “Gadaffi is a freedom fighter”, “Sexwale is a communist”. DA
youth were even more annoying; all boardshorts and fake smiles. “Only
the DA has a proven track record,” was the mantra. These are the young
leaders of tomorrow…
The DA also made a big deal about playing by the rules. They attacked
the ANC for ripping down campaign posters. The subtext was they’d never
stoop to such villainy themselves. However, our posters were ripped
down and replaced with the DA candidate’s visage. On polling day, you’re
not supposed to campaign or wear party emblems inside the IEC exclusion
zone. The DA did both. Seems the rules of the game can be broken when
it suits yourself.
6. There really is a culture of entitlement.
“The so called ‘culture of entitlement’ is really just ANC sour
grapes over supporters stupidly believing election promises about
housing and jobs. How dare the ingrates actually demand them!” – The DA
take on the phrase paints a picture of hordes of grant recipients living
it up at ratepayers’ expense. But the real culture of entitlement is
deeply embedded in the political class itself.
During the run up to the election debate most candidates whined about
how best to stage manage the event to their own benefit. Some of them
even felt appearing before their ward was undignified! Why can’t the
little people just put an x in the box and leave it at that?
Our campaign was DIY. Punk as hell, but time consuming. Other parties
had deep national pockets to rely on: posters ready to go, quotable
publicised manifestos and minions to do everything. Multiply the
let-someone-else-do-it attitude all the way to the top and you have the
real culture of entitlement.
7. Democracy could be more democratic.
We, the Students for Social Justice, registered with the IEC with no
money, experience or a detailed plan of attack. We tried to insert
ourselves directly into the political process. That’s the last thing
politicians want us to do. We’re supposed to leave that sort of thing to
established political parties who will offer up personalities to
represent us. Public participation is, at best, gestural, occasional and
mediated through the self-proclaimed experts of civil society.
The ruling classes hate to be held accountable. Anyone prosecuted yet
for starting the endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or precipitating
the biggest financial crisis since 1929? Genuine accountability would
mean politicians would have to stop stealing and wasting public funds.
As someone in the ANC campaign helpfully explained, people need to be
“shown what is in their best interests”.
Instead, the SSJ suggested voters could use councillors as a conduit
for their own concerns. Real civil servants. I would sign a recall
policy (if my work didn’t hold up) and only accept a living wage (to be
decided by the constituency).
What the lesson might be: The possibilities offered by representative
democracy have become circumscribed to the point of vacuity. We are not
even sold “high minded” lies anymore. Apparently as voters we don’t
want to hear talk about freedom and equality, all we want is better
service delivery. While this is packaged as pragmatic realism, it seems
more to speak to a hollowing out of democracy and a narrowing of
horizons. Words like transparency and accountability are thrown out in a
ritualistic manner, token offerings to a sprit that has either left the
building or never existed in the first place. Frankly, much of our
official political discourse is based on pretty narrow and mean spirited
assessment of human potential. Such an unattractive system is unlikely
to inspire much enthusiasm but is also so deeply entrenched that is has
become accepted as some kind of natural order. By at least offering an
alternative to these terms we freaked out the established parties, even
if they are loathe to admit it.
8. Politics is tricky.
Before this campaign, I had a very simplistic picture of how power
operates: bad elites versus ordinary people. It’s essentially that but
there’s a lot more to it. For one thing “ordinary people” aren’t a solid
unchanging mass. People disagree. They have opinions. They change. You
can’t count on automatic support just because you believe you have the
right idea. People are smarter than that. They need convincing.
Even my fellow students were resistant, sceptical and in some cases
outright hostile to the SSJ. They often rejected our proposals. People
our own age. It was a powerful political lesson. In one of our public
forums, someone said they would be rather be lied to by a suit than try
out an untested new arrangement.
Clearly people have come to accept a very limited view of politics.
We have grown up in an era of neoliberal market values. There is a
widespread sense of vulnerable isolation and despair from being at the
mercy of the market. Beyond that is the looming dread of an imminently
plausible future of environmental collapse, resource wars, the
militarisation and securitisation of everyday life… the current
political system won’t address this because it is at once hopelessly
implicated in and a constitutive part of the problem.
And the hard truth is that a lot of young people have a vested
interest in the status quo. It is difficult not to readily internalise
what society says it wants from you. House, car, promotion. But the
financial crisis has shown the middle class elevator isn’t working. The
cable has snapped. It’s us at the bottom and the 1% at the top. We all
have to work out what that means to us. How much it matters. The
campaign taught me that you shouldn’t water down principles to attract
the majority. You have to convince that majority with the facts.
9. Get serious.
We were told repeatedly: “you aren’t serious. You’re just playing
with politics for fun”. It was annoying because our issues are burning.
We didn’t run on an obvious studenty “Legalise It” ticket. We raised
serious procedural questions about local government. Sure we were
haltering and gauche a lot of the time, but never insincere. The sheer
amount of work we put in surprised even us.
The DA campaign never stopped questioning our commitment. Here’s what
one DA youth cadre told the press: “It’s great a student is running but
being in charge of a municipality is serious. You need experience. The
DA is the only party with a proven track record.” It went on in that
vein. The City of Cape Town is 5 minutes away from utopia While every
municipality in the hands of the ANC has broken down, caught fire and
sunk into the earth. The kid was basically saying young people are
incompentent fuck ups. Leave it to the professionals.
For once in our lives we didn’t leave it to the professionals. We did
it ourselves. We ran a campaign about real issues. We finally decided
to make a difference. And got involved.