Elections don't lessen conflict: Why the 'senseless' post-poll violence

VANESSA BAROLSKY examines the way in which South Africa’s fourth democratic elections, held in April 2009, have been interpreted as if it was the triumphal moment of democratic politics. According to this interpretation, elections are capable of steering the country inevitably towards a state of permanent peace through an ideology-free, mechanical process – a world in which, 'history has ended',1 a world free from ideology and hence free from the stain of violence.  
 
   
Elections, therefore, are seen as merely a managerial exercise, divorced from wider relations of power and conflict. The fundamentally conflicting nature of democratic politics is ignored in favour of an emphasis on ‘consensus’ in pursuit of ‘national unity’, obfuscating underlying power inequalities on which such consensus is frequently based.

The failure to recognise the conflicting nature of democratic politics, and exclusionary citizenship created by the drive for ‘consensus’ and ‘national unity’, creates the space for unmediated forms of violence, as marginalised citizens violently express an intolerable weight of frustration.

With a large voter turnout and little violence directly related to polling, the April 2009 elections in South Africa were hailed as an indicator of the ‘maturity’ of South Africa’s democracy. But in the days following the elections, violent community protests swept across the country, such as the burning of a library in Siyathemba township in Mpumalanga, and have remained ongoing to date.

This article investigates the apparent paradox between the ‘peacefulness’ of South Africa’s election process and the violent community protests that pre-dated and have continued since the country’s fourth democratic elections.

  
Understanding democracy

 

This article disputes common sense expectations that elections can conclusively mitigate conflict in society, and questions the aspiration towards consensus on which this expectation is founded, which hides the implication of power in this ostensibly ‘ideology-free’ process.

 

This understanding of elections is grounded in a juridical, administrative vision of the political that is unable to encompass conflict within the political and social domains because it cannot recognise the struggles for popular sovereignty on which many of these, sometimes bloody, conflicts are founded.

The failure to recognise the conflicting nature of democratic politics, and exclusionary citizenship created by the drive for ‘consensus’ and ‘national unity’, creates the space for unmediated forms of violence, as marginalised citizens violently express an intolerable weight of frustration.

As Neocosmos in From Foreign Native to Native Foreigner (2006) points out, the way in which citizenship has been constructed in post-apartheid SA has been fundamentally ‘passive’. Being born in South Africa confers citizenship status, rather than the active participation that existed during the struggle against apartheid.

Chatterjee in Democracy and the Violence of the State: A Political Negotiation of Death (2001) seeks to interpret as profoundly political the struggles of Indian citizens in South Africa. These citizens engaged in sometimes violent, popular struggles which occurred outside the law and formal institutions. He observes that there has been a ‘widening of the arena of political mobilisation … from formally organised structures such as political parties with well-ordered internal constitutions, and coherent doctrines and programmes, to loose and often transient mobilisations, building on communication structures that would not ordinarily be recognised as political’.

Post-electoral antagonism starkly evident


South African analysts have struggled to interpret the violence that continues to characterise South African society, and in particular the idea that the holding of regular elections indicates an unambiguous acceptance among citizens of the values and framework of liberal democracy; and an assumption that the institutions and processes of this framework can conclusively lessen conflict in society.

Chipkin in Democracy in South Africa: The State of Solidarity (2009), however, argues that one cannot assume democratic social relations will follow automatically from democratic political institutions.

This is starkly evident in the South African context, if one compares the high levels of legitimacy enjoyed by formal political institutions with the violence characterising many aspects of our social relations.

Contrary to much social-capital literature, which assumes that democracy can function only if there are high levels of civic engagement and social connection between citizens, the South African case demonstrates that democratic institutions can take root in a society ambivalent about democratic norms and values. In this South Africa is not alone – this is also the case in many other recently democratised countries in the global South.

The closing of space for a viable and meaningful opposition to the status quo in this post-ideological, consensus-driven world can give rise to dangerous forms of anarchy, as people lack meaningful channels through which to express discontent.

Previous Afrobarometer surveys have indicated that the wider citizenry continues to show conditional enthusiasm for liberal institutions. Only a third of the electorate consider the procedural components of the political system non-negotiable – majority rule, regular elections, freedom to criticise government, and multiparty competition.

Mattes in Democracy without People: Political Institutions and Citizenship in the New South Africa (2007) found that the popular demand for democracy between 2000 and 2006 remained stable, rather than showing an upward trend.

Further analysis found that only 35% declared themselves unwilling to give up regular elections, and ‘live under a non-elected government or leader’ who could ‘impose law and order, and deliver houses or jobs’. In other words, 65% of respondents were prepared to make this compromise.

Fundamental alienation

Yunus Carrim, former deputy minister of cooperative governance and traditional affairs, wrote in relation to South African citizens’ involvement in violent community protests: ‘It reflects a far more fundamental alienation of people from our democracy. It suggests an acute sense of marginalisation and social exclusion … Many of the protesters are alienated from the state as a whole, not just local government, and not just the whole state, but from society too.’ While it is assumed that the aspiration for free and fair elections is a common-sense objective, ... what is seldom questioned is whether these aspirations are achievable, or even desirable, and whether, in seeking to impose consensus which disallows opposition, we unleash unmediated forms of violence and opposition. 

Thus, while liberal conceptions assume that conflict can be mediated through administration and regular elections, allowing people to ‘choose their representatives in a neutral playing field’, these undoubtedly important processes are in fact intricately coordinated with a deeper struggle for sovereignty. This struggle is often expressed in bloody conflict against an ‘other’.

 

The conventional assumption is that elections are able to ‘magically’ manage and resolve the fundamental contradictions and antagonisms of society is a dangerous obfuscation. It conceals a conservatism that seeks to impose a manufactured consensus on society and ignores the unequal power relations embedded within this ‘consensus’.

 

The closing of space for a viable and meaningful opposition to the status quo in this post-ideological, consensus-driven world can give rise to dangerous forms of anarchy, as people lack meaningful channels through which to express discontent.

 

One reason for optimism, however, is that in the light of its fractured and divided past South Africa became increasingly concerned with the quest for national unity and reconciliation, which would hopefully prevent violent conflict between antagonistic groupings.

 

Mattes argues that the focus of the ruling ANC on nation-building has been at the expense of an emphasis on democracy, as ‘support for democracy remains to some extent contingent on whether the state is able to deliver’. 

  
Opposition leads to ostracism

 

This emphasis on ‘nation-building’, combined with the continued political dominance of the ANC, has meant that the space for contesting dominant ideological paradigms is weakened. Opposition to this ‘national vision’ can lead to ostracism and ‘othering’.

 

In the post-colonial global South, the contradictory impact of consensus-driven politics is particularly stark, since the transition to democracy in many of these countries has frequently been accompanied by rising violence, as the deregulation associated with transition creates new opportunities for contestation.

 

While it is assumed that the aspiration for free and fair elections is a common-sense objective which merely requires tinkering with electoral mechanisms, codes of conduct, deployment of election officials and so on, what is seldom questioned is whether these aspirations are achievable, or even desirable, and whether, in seeking to impose consensus which disallows opposition, we unleash unmediated forms of violence and opposition.

 

A number of valid explanations can be offered for violence – inequality, municipal corruption, lack of access to local government, housing policy and migration – but these all balk at the point at which we are asked to link them with the actual violence, which often appears profoundly irrational.

 

To quote Chatterjee: ‘This is a zone where … the certainties of civil and social norms and constitutional proprieties are put to the challenge. Rights and rules have to be, seemingly, negotiated afresh. Only those voices are heard that can make the loudest noise, and can speak on behalf of the largest numbers. There is violence in the air.’

Author: Dr Vanessa Barolsky, chief researcher, Democracy, Governance and Service Delivery programme, HSRC.

1  Fukuyama F (1992) The End of History and the Last Man. New York: Free Press.