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"What will we gain from this research?" - Despondent Rural Community and Electoral Clientelism in Misty Mount Libode

Written by: Thandokazi Silosini


This blog intends to explore the clientelist relationship that rural people of Misty Mount, Libode and other rural areas of the Eastern Cape have with their elected government and the delivery of basic services. Data collected in the rural area of Misty Mount reveals that rural people hold despondent views of the government and its ability to deliver services. Thus, rural folk place a lot of emphasis on what they stand to gain from their engagement with government officials as a consequence of their vote. 


South Africa’s 7th democratic national elections took place on Wednesday the 29th May 2024 and issues related to the performance of the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), have become a point of contention in rural settings. The Covid-19 pandemic posed a unique global crisis which negatively impacted economies, industries, and people's livelihoods especially those in rural areas. One of the deeply concerning aspects of this crisis was the mass loss of jobs which affected people in various sectors of the economy and from all walks of life. South Africa witnessed a significant number of working-class people losing their jobs and those who work in informal sectors losing their livelihoods particularly during the National Lockdown.


Working class South Africans were severely affected by the pandemic particularly those in peri – urban and rural areas whose main sources of income rely on their informal or unskilled labour. Many rural South Africans do not have formal employment and rely on small piece jobs including domestic work, recycling work, gardening and being labourers. Such work is also supplemented by the social welfare grants including child support grant, old age grant, and disability grants which members of households may be receiving. 


Despite having one of the world's most extensive social welfare systems and other constitutionally mandated economic redress strategies, South Africa is still among the most unequal countries with a majority of its population living in poverty. This is part of the reason why South Africa’s relationship with their elected government is rather strained. Thus, many including opposition parties have lamented the decision of rural South Africans who are the largest voter base of the ANC to continue electing the ANC into government.


Many argue that politicians use their power to provide economic privileges or material support in exchange for political support. It is unsurprising that the same system of patronage identified as corruption within the ANC government can be seen in the relationship that it has created with the voters. Many suggest that the government has made elections a system of quid-pro-quo between the ANC and voters where citizens exchange their vote for services. Thus, some opponents of South Africa’s extensive social grant system have suggested that social grants guarantee support for the ANC.


Indeed, the ANC government has also conceived this idea in the minds of many South Africans in its rhetoric. President Cyril Ramaphosa in the State of the Nation address claimed that social welfare will cease to exist if the ANC does not win this year’s national elections. This is seen by many as a way to capitalise on the fear that many South Africans have regarding who to vote for which stems from South Africa’s Apartheid past and its legacies. Although receiving a grant is not a predictor of party preference, fear of loss of a grant certainly is. This suggests that potential voters do make rational decisions and choices that affect their material well-being, and expressed approval of the grants system.


The people of Misty Mount are no different as they seem to have a conflicted relationship with the government and elected officials. The community seems disillusioned with government and political parties. I picked this up in a lot of initial conversations with people on my quest to introduce myself and recruit participants. The responses were almost all the same. Upon explaining that I am doing research in Misty Mount and need to talk to people to get information, everybody immediately associates what I am doing with the work of government workers and political parties who go into communities from time to time to get information or canvass for support for their political parties. Thus, the comments such as “Oh ufana naba bantu benza u door-to-door for urhulumente." Meaning, “Oh you are like those people who do door-to-door for the government.” This statement will usually be followed by complaints or disinterest because people have grown to understand that the government makes empty promises.


Figure 1: Election Day in Misty Mount where ANC campaigns for votes (Photograph taken by Thandokazi Silosini)


Despite their appreciation of my pleasant disposition and wishing me luck, few people were forthcoming and enthusiastic about participating in the research by giving an interview. Part of the reason for the lack of interest in participating is wrapped in a common question that I still get asked, which is how will they benefit from this research? In the conversations I have been having with residents of Misty Mount it became clear that people’s want to have an immediate material benefit commonly in the form of a food parcel in order to participate in whatever is being asked of them.  


Since my first arrival in Misty Mount in March 2023, every community member I told about the Women RISE research has asked me what they will get after participating in an interview. “Kengoku, xa sele uyifumene le information sizofumana ntoni okanye sizokwenzelwa ntoni”, meaning “Once you have gotten this information from us, what will we get or what will be done for us?” Sis’ Nomandla asked me this question at a meeting which I attended at the royal house. The lack of immediate material gains for the people from this research seems to confirm the community’s distrust of government and government workers. People are generally not keen to give of themselves without some material incentive. Thus, I was made to understand that the best way to get people to participate in almost anything is to have something to give them. This is how the conversation about food parcels begins.


Since the COVID pandemic food parcels seem to have become a popular incentive measure which means that people are less likely to participate in research. During the lockdown, the National State of Disaster in 2020 meant that food parcels were part of the COVID relief measures taken by the government to assist the poor. Since then communities look forward to food parcels as an immediate benefit for having voted. The common phrase which is commonly directed at me and my research is “awuphethanga zi food parcels”, meaning “you are not bringing any food parcels”; therefore, people would be less inclined to talk to me.


It seems that a rather clientelist relationship between the rural community and government has developed where immediate gain is the price that government must pay its citizens. This is also indicative of clientelist understanding of elections and voting in the democratic process. Many scholars have pointed out that the meaning of the vote is something South Africa battles with particularly around election time as the government and citizens alike use the vote to bargain with each other for services.


References


Independent Electoral Commission (2024) What’s New in the 2024 Election. [Online] https://www.elections.org.za/pw/elections/whats-new-in-the-2024-elections-electoral-amendment


Masemurule, M.H. (2023) South Africa has changed its electoral law, but a much more serious overhaul is needed [Online] https://theconversation.com/south-africa-has-changed-its-electoral-law-but-a-much-more-serious-overhaul-is-needed-204820


Mbethe, S. (2023) Electoral Reform in South Africa Report Prepared for the Organisation Undergoing Tax Abuse (OUTA) & My Vote Count (MVC). [Online] https://www.outa.co.za/web/content/232269


Patel, L and Sadie, Y. (2021) We Studied Why South Africans Vote the Ways they do. This is What We Found. The Conversation [Online] https://theconversation.com/we-studied-why-south-africans-vote-the-way-they-do-this-is-what-we-found-162942

Ramaphosa, C. M., (2024) State of the Nation Address. [Online]


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