Elections: extinguishing antagonism in society?
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In April 2009 South Africa held its fourth national democratic elections. With a large voter turnout and little violence, the elections were hailed as an indication of the 'maturity' of South Africa's democracy. However, in the days following the elections, violent community protests swept across the country and have remained ongoing to date. How is it possible to make sense of this apparent paradox between the peacefulness of South Africa's elections and the violence? In particular, why is so much of this violence
apparently 'irrational'? Why has the succession of `peaceful? elections in South Africa not extinguished it? These disparities are difficult to interpret in a dominant discursive paradigm which assumes that elections constitute the triumphal moment of democratic politics, capable of steering the country ineluctably towards a state of permanent peace. It is argued that the apparent 'paradox' posed by 'peaceful' elections and violent community protests is not an empirical problematic but a conceptual one and is born out of a conception of the political domain and elections within this domain in purely legalistic and technocratic terms. In this conception, therefore, elections are merely a managerial exercise, divorced from wider relations of power and conflict.
The fundamentally conflictual nature of democratic politics is ignored in favour of an emphasis on 'consensus' in the pursuit of 'national unity', obfuscating the underlying power inequalities on which such consensus is frequently based. This article explores how South Africa's 2009 elections were interpreted in terms of this 'managerial' discourse in order to attempt to relocate elections within a more deeply rooted understanding of democracy, which does not assume a teleological progression towards an ultimate state of peace, but which engages with the material reality of contestation and blood in post-apartheid South Africa.