As South African voters prepare to go to the polls on April 22, they will be well advised to refer to the Catholic bishops’ pastoral statement “Awake! Awake! Protect our Democracy”. The bishops’ pastoral statement should be required reading even for non-Catholics because it outlines persuasively the responsibility of every South African citizen to be involved in the political processes of the country — and not only at election time.
As the bishops rightly point out: “We all need to demand continuous accountability and a spirit of service from our leaders at all levels, making full use of all the institutions that exist to work against corruption in our society.”
It is not good enough to resignedly shake our collective heads, declaring that politicians are intrinsically deceitful and that honest citizens are powerless in holding them accountable. An election affords citizens the opportunity to reward or punish the governing party for its performance.
Voters will need to study the policy platform of parties standing in the election, and discern whether the party manifestoes express their views and aspirations, and whether the parties are likely to keep promises and be willing to be held accountable when they do not.
In South Africa this year, even that is not easy. The African National Congress (ANC) standing for elections is not quite the same party that won an overwhelming mandate in 1994, 1999 and 2004. It can be said that the ANC of Jacob Zuma is something of an opposition party to the ANC of Thabo Mbeki.
The Congress of the People (Cope) may represent the Mbeki ANC, but it is not the ANC and it is still finding its identity. And the Democratic Alliance, if its electoral list offers any clue, is not quite the same DA which in 2005 became the official opposition, having now reverted to represent more traditional liberal values. More than ever, the bishops’ request that old party loyalties should not cloud our choices, holds true.
Catholic voters will be troubled by the fact that the ANC, DA and Cope take a benign view of abortion. If abortion is their litmus test for electability, then they may decide to cast their votes for smaller parties, such as the African Christian Democratic Party, the Inkatha Freedom Party or the Freedom Front Plus.
However, the bishops have warned in the past against single-issue voting. Their pastoral letter identifies life issues, including abortion, among the problems South Africa faces. But the bishops see many other challenges. The Catholic voter will need to determine whether parties which oppose legalised abortion address these concerns — and whether they are competent to address them.
For many voters, probably most, the April elections will be a referendum on the ANC under Mr Zuma’s leadership. Those who approve of Mr Zuma or find his party otherwise tolerable are likely to vote for the ANC (though some may well distribute their votes to constrain the party’s power). Those who vote against an ANC government need to seek answers as to whether a coalition of DA, Cope and other parties would be feasible — and whether such a coalition would be competent to govern the country.
At present, the South African electorate is facing many such questions. These are too important to be ignored. When we vote we must be informed, and to be informed we must engage in the political discourse. We must heed the bishops’ sound counsel: “When citizens stop participating, and don’t bother to vote, those in positions of authority are allowed to do as they please without fear of being challenged.”
It is our obligation this year to instill that fear into our politicians.