What’s at stake in the South African and Malawi elections this month?

May 6, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

Max Lawson, Oxfam’s Head of Advocacy and Public Policy, reflects on impending elections in South Africa and Malawi

Malawi and South Africa’s election cycle is identical.  Both had their first democratic multi-party elections 20 years ago this month.  Who can forget the South African elections 1994incredible photos of black people queuing from before dawn across South Africa to exercise their right to vote for the first time.

Malawi’s freedom might not have been as world famous, but Malawians rejoiced at the end of 31 years of dictatorship by the Homburg hatted Dr Hastings Banda, who before becoming dictator of Malawi at the age of sixty was a medical doctor in the London suburb of Brondesbury Park for 20 years. Now that is what I call a second career.

I visited both countries in the last few weeks, and in both, election fever was in full swing, with every available space plastered with party posters.  Politics and the outcome of the election filled the media and dominated conversation. Elections are exciting things. South Africa goes to the polls tomorrow (May 7th) and Malawi on May 20th.

Yet the excitement is tinged with more than a small sense of disillusionment.  No one I met or spoke to said they were not going to vote, but most were unenthusiastic. Both countries are about to go to the polls for the fifth time since freedom, and it is fair to say that the sheen has definitely rubbed off democracy.

Both countries have been rocked by a series of corruption scandals and ‘gates’.  In South Africa, they have Nkandlagate, where the Government, according to the Public Protector’s report,  has been found to have spent millions of taxpayers’ money on Jacob Zuma’s private residence in Nkandla in Zululand, which now boasts  helipads, massive swimming pool, etc all in the name of  security . In Malawi the government of Joyce Banda, Africa’s second female president, has been rocked by Cashgate, where ministers and senior civil servants misused a government computer system to steal millions of dollars.

Zuma-Fish-and-Chips-ZapiroYet despite these scandals, both Jacob Zuma and Joyce Banda are expected to be re-elected. The ANC majority may fall, perhaps dipping below the watershed level of 60% for the first time. The party of Mandela is being deserted to the left by those opting instead for the Economic Freedom Fighters of Julius Malema, and those who are choosing to vote for the Democratic Alliance, historically the party of the whites.  The opposition to Joyce Banda is split between three major other parties.

In Malawi, Oxfam is running an election campaign, focusing on supporting poor farmers’ demands of prospective candidates that they pledge to do more to help the rural poor, for example by reviving government purchasing of crops and improving the price they get for their produce.  A tiny private sector and effective privatisation of the state marketing board under World Bank instruction has left productive farmers across the country being forced to sell at knock down prices or else watch the fruits of their labour rot.  I witnessed 4 powerful women farmers berating candidates for constituencies in Mchinji district, about 100 miles to the west of the capital Lilongwe.  One woman farmer looked them in the eye and said in Chichewa ‘never forget, you work for us’.  Brilliant. I also attended the second live presidential candidate’s debate, which saw all candidates having to answer questions on a range of topics broadcast to the nation.  It was rather dull to be honest, mainly due to a very boring moderator.  I found myself wishing he could be swapped for the woman farmer who would have given them all a proper roasting.

It is heartening that press freedom in both South Africa and Malawi, although constantly under threat, remains strong and very vibrant compared to many other countries.  In South Africa the press coverage and investigation of government is unremitting.  Malawi, by a quirk of fate is one of the only African countries to have a fully independent national radio station, Zodiac. They were the ones who revealed live on air that the last president, Bingu Mutarika, had died, even whilst the government radio continued to insist he was merely ill and had been taken to hospital.  It was in no small thanks to Zodiac telling the nation the truth that the country avoided a coup.

In South Africa there has been much soul searching over what has been achieved in the twenty years since the first democratic election.  Millions of houses have been built; millions of South Africans benefit from a strong system of social grants; millions more from better access to services.  Poverty levels have reduced.  Yet there is still a feeling of an opportunity lost and much more that could have been achieved given the available resources.  South Africa is now more unequal than at the end of Apartheid, with a handful of billionaires holding the majority of the country’s wealth, whilst 7 million still live on less than $1 a day.

It is not just the supporters of Julius Malema who are asking whether political freedom is worth much against this backdrop of extreme economic South African shanty towninequality, and whether the price paid for political freedom – agreeing not to challenge the dominant economic system in the country – was too high.   In Malawi too, poverty has remained stubbornly high in the last twenty years, and the majority have very little to show for the country’s political progress. Indeed whilst no one wants a return to dictatorship, many do speak fondly of the days of Banda, when they felt they had more economic security.  Certainly in the many years I have been going to Malawi, the only growth industry seems to be big houses for politicians and expatriate aid workers, and a surfeit of shopping malls.

As Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis said at the time of the great depression in the US, ‘We can either have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both’. A recent 30 country survey by the London School of Economics has shown that higher levels of inequality are strongly associated with lower levels of voter turnout among the poor and wider civic disengagement. That is heartbreaking, as democracy is the only thing that can peacefully defeat extreme wealth.  Disillusion with democracy is dangerous.  In the short run it favours those at the top.  In the long run, it favours nobody.

And here’s a useful Economist infographic on South Africa 1994 v 2014

S Africa 1994 v 2014