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Examining the 2016 municipal elections in South Africa in light of the social teaching of the church on political authority and the common good: An outsider’s observation

Margaret Ssebunya

I am a Ugandan lay-woman who has been studying in South Africa for the past three years, with the aid of a CTEWC grant. I have been interested in the 2016 local elections in my host country.

On 3rd August 2016, South Africans went to the polls to vote for councilors who will be responsible for governing their municipalities for the next five years. The municipal elections are meant to ensure that all citizens get access to better services including health, electricity, roads, housing, water and sanitation among other things. The theme for the elections was: “My tomorrow is in my hands” implying that the choice of councilors that the people made would determine how they will live in the next five years. With this in mind, a number of political parties as well as independent candidates came to the political scene each promising to deliver and take services closer to their communities.

Gaudium et spes 73 advocates that every person, especially the most disadvantaged and marginalized, should have access to more than just the basic necessities of life. The Church is clear on service delivery but also on political authority. The ideal society envisaged by Catholic Social Teaching (CST) is described by Baum as “an alternative concept of democracy and one which allows the participation of all in the important decisions that affect their lives.”1 In fact paragraph 384 of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church recognizes the human person as the foundation and purpose of political life. It further recognizes people’s ability to form their own opinions on public matters and the freedom to express their own political sentiments and to bring them to bear positively on the common good.

Prior to the voting day, communities staged service delivery protests against a lack of decent housing, education and other services. Ignoring basic needs of the community is an abuse of their human dignity and is contrary to the social teaching of the church on the common good. Society should be organized in such a way as to benefit all its members. People ought to find fulfillment in the political life they chose to live (through the ballot). This means that elected leaders should give their best services to the people. This is the essence of servant leadership. When leaders are in positions of servant leadership, they don’t consider themselves above the people. Rather they put the needs of their electorate first. This builds more trust for the leaders and establishes stronger relationship between the leaders and the people as the leaders aspire to a people-centered purpose that transcends politics.

In some areas, the political atmosphere was rather tense. Pre-election violence resulted from intra-party conflicts over the appointment of candidate councillors. Kwazulu Natal province was reported to have the highest number of politically instigated murders. In Tshwane, there was violence resulting from conflicts within the African National Congress (ANC). The violence led to looting of shops, setting vehicles ablaze and murders. The pre-election violence was clearly contrary to CST.

Pre-election violence in the 2016 municipal elections in South Africa is not an isolated case. In a number of countries in Africa, there have been similar incidents. For example in Uganda, during the February 2016 presidential elections, excessive use of force, arrests of journalists and obstruction of opposition party rallies were common. Also, in the recently concluded Zambian presidential elections, there were tensions between political party supporters which led to the death of some people and the injury of several others.

These elections have been considered a game changer in South African political history. The ruling ANC government lost support in the major metro cities like Johannesburg, Cape Town, Pretoria (Tshwane) and Nelson Mandela bay (Port Elizabeth) and the Democratic Alliance (DA) – the major opposition party has taken on their governance (thanks to coalitions). This could be an indication that the ANC has lost touch with the local people. The ruling ANC’s ‘struggle credentials’ against the apartheid regime seem not to have helped it secure the majority votes in the key metros. Commenting on the loss of the ANC in major metros, Justice Malala states:

This is a watershed moment because it means South Africa is no longer a country dominated by one party of liberation. For long, we were slowly inching towards being a proper, lively, multi-party system that holds power to account. We are now hurtling that way. It’s exhilarating…The country now enters a new era of competitive politics in a terrain where once the ANC’s struggle credentials ensured it unparalleled success.2

Parties now forming the local government, should endeavor to deliver on their promises and fulfill their duty of providing services to the people. Through better service delivery they will be able to consolidate their power and even win votes in other municipalities. This should not be restricted to a particular group but rather be extended to all people. Political leaders have a responsibility to all people [regardless of their race, culture, economic status and ideologies] most especially to the marginalized. This is the true essence of solidarity – expressed in par 192 of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church: “solidarity highlights in a particular way the intrinsic social nature of the human person, equality of all in dignity and rights and the common path of individuals and peoples towards an even more committed unity.”

1 Baum, G.  (1989)  ‘Community and Identity’, Ellis, M.  and Maduro, O.  (eds.)  Expanding the View: Gustavo Gutierrez and the Future of Liberation Theology, Maryknoll NY, Orbis Books (pp.102-12)

2 Malala. J. (2016). “South Africa has broken the post-colonial narrative. It’s a thrilling turning point”. The Guardian. [accessed on 20th August, 2016]