Coalition calamity and the allure of a dictatorship

Winston Churchill is famously misquoted as saying: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” He never said it apparently, but it’s no less true as we are finding out in Johannesburg this week, with the election of yet another mayor.

Former newspaper-editor-turned-Joburg-councillor Martin Williams wrote in his column this week that he has served under seven mayors in seven years. It’s ludicrous. It’s a game of musical chairs made possible by shaky alliances based on the politics of the stomachs of individuals rather than political principles – or, crucially, what the voters themselves want.

The metropolitan council is a massive undertaking – it’s the second-biggest legislature in the country, with 270 seats. It has a massive budget and gargantuan responsibilities to its almost six-million residents.

And it’s failing.

This week, as the temperatures soared, many people had to make do with water shedding. Not because there isn’t any water, but because the infrastructure is packing up. Electricity distribution networks are similar, switching the power back on can often blow up the local distribution boxes, plunging areas into darkness for days and, sometimes, weeks before the problem is fixed.

You can blame it on a lack of maintenance. But who guards the guards – who keeps the municipal workers accountable when the council is such a state of flux? That’s just one of the symptoms we are experiencing as a result of coalition governments – when they are a ragtag patchwork of opportunists, rather than people who believe the promises they make the voters when they go out on the hustings.

It’s going to get worse because there’s every possibility that the national government could be run by a coalition after the next general elections in 2024. What’s to stop us having five presidents in five years? It sounds far-fetched, but then, eight years ago, no one ever imagined what would happen in the Braamfontein mayoral parlour.

It’s a joke, but we’re the punchline. It also goes a long way to explaining why the prospect of dictatorship is apparently gaining popularity. According to a survey last month, 25% of the respondents wouldn’t mind getting rid of democracy if it meant things would work. Almost three-quarters of young voters (the ones that didn’t pitch to vote last time) feel this way.

The problem, of course, is that you can’t ensure that your favourite dictator will get in. There’s no guarantee that if they do, they’ll do what they are supposed to instead of entrenching what we are going through – with the elite having the best of everything, and more and more South Africans getting less and less.

One thing that Churchill did say about democracy was that it was the worst form of government – except for all the other forms that have been tried before. The answer is simple, you get the government you deserve, especially if you couldn’t be bothered to vote in the first place.

So, make a difference next time you’re in the voting booth.

Originally published by the Saturday Star on 8 October 2022.