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Culture, Reality

Nine Important Things

by Chris McMichael / Images by Tania Pehl / 09.11.2011

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 consequences.


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 official silence.

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.

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