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Vuvuzela Democracy

Vuvuzela Democracy

South Africans are about to head to the polls–and cast their votes in one of the most consequential elections for the democratic world this year.

Vusi Tyala

There’s this wonderful South African play called Woza Albert. It was written in 1981, at the height of apartheid. The play asks the question, “What if Jesus were to come back right here and right now?” The play is a story about a people with a heritage of visionary leaders who are nonetheless leaderless in their hour of greatest need. For many South Africans heading to the polls May 29, that describes the state of their nation today.

The play’s protagonists are working-class Black South Africans who give Jesus a tour of apartheid South Africa. On his journey, Jesus performs many miracles and becomes a beacon of hope. Initially, the government welcomes His arrival as an endorsement. But when He publicly condemns apartheid, they label Him a communist imposter and throw Him in Victor Verster Prison.

Jesus is able to escape from prison in the arms of an angel. So they put Him on Robben Island (now equipped with special “anti-angel” missiles). But Robben Island can’t hold Him—Jesus is soon seen walking across the water back to Cape Town. The bumbling authorities decide to end the problem once and for all by dropping a nuclear bomb on His head, destroying Cape Town and Table Mountain in the process.

Our protagonists are despondent. Their last best hope is dead. But three days later, Jesus reappears to them. They rejoice and celebrate. His resurrection inspires them to ask if He might not be able to resurrect their other fallen leaders. The play ends with them going grave to grave resurrecting the great heroes of the struggle. It ends with the resurrection of Albert Luthuli, South Africa’s Martin Luther King, Jr., as Jesus commands him to rise: “Woza Albert!”

Fall from Grace

In 2008, South Africa’s fourth post-apartheid president, Jacob Zuma—a member of the African National Congress (ANC), which came to power with Nelson Mandela in 1994—declared that the ANC would rule until Jesus comes back. Today, the very same Jacob Zuma, though he continues to be beset by corruption charges, is leading a breakaway party. That party is likely to eat deep into ANC support, just about ensuring the ANC will fail to achieve a majority in May.

This is a political earthquake. South Africa uses proportional representation to elect its Parliament, and it is Parliament that elects the president. Neither the classical liberals of the Democratic Alliance nor the radical Marxists of the Economic Freedom Fighters are in a position to attain a majority, which means South Africa is set not for a “transition of power” but rather for a “transition to power-sharing.”

This has already happened at the local level. In the 2016 elections, the ANC lost its majority in many big cities. The result was coalition government in important cities like Johannesburg and Pretoria. These coalitions have made strange bedfellows of mortal enemies like the Democratic Alliance and Economic Freedom Fighters, and empowered tiny parties to exercise disproportionate power as kingmakers. Unfortunately, these coalitions have been dysfunctional and thus are disliked by many South Africans, who see their country’s economic and other challenges going unaddressed. Johannesburg has tellingly had eight mayors over the span of two years.

If you are still wondering whether the ANC will “win” the elections or not, you are about eight years behind. The real question for many South Africans today is whether we will be able to survive the chaos of a sequence of coalition governments at the national level. There are good reasons to worry that the political uncertainty will remove our ability even to manage our ongoing decline. For many South Africans, the chaos is likely to call into question whether the democratic project has proven incapable of delivering on its promises.

Diverse Peoples Unite

Proportional representation promotes fragmentation because it allows small but well-organized groups to exist independently. It makes the politics of a country noisier, as more and more diverse voices are added to the conversation. Personally, I’m optimistic about this—at least in the long run.

There are checks and balances in our system that have never worked quite as well as they should, precisely because the ANC always had a majority. A fragmented, proportional parliament without a clear majority is one where all parties have an incentive and ability to expose one another’s corruption. If the concentration of power corrupts, the distribution of power can bring accountability.

Fragmentation also incentivizes cooperation. Only the politicians who are able to disagree with everyone but work with anyone will be able to navigate this new reality. Within parties, those individuals who are able to reach across the aisle will be empowered as allies and rivals alike demand their involvement as a precondition for working together. As cooperation becomes a more common feature of South African politics, the most extreme and uncooperative voices should fade away. On some level, tracking individual parties is less important than looking for the individual uniters rising up within each party.

Take Chris Pappas, one of the most exciting politicians in South Africa today. Pappas, the mayor since 2021 of a small town in KwaZulu-Natal province, is young, White, and gay. By all accounts, he governs well, but that is to be expected given the kind of technocrats his party, the Democratic Alliance, attracts. It is uncommon for White South Africans to speak any native African languages, but Pappas speaks Zulu fluently. While Democratic Alliance leaders are often criticized for being tone-deaf, racially insensitive scolds, Pappas comes across as caring, compassionate, and amiable. He genuinely seems to “get it.” Based on the media and popular reception to him, he will play a core role in the future of the Democratic Alliance if opposition parties see him as that very sort of cooperative person they know they can work with.

I’m betting that the fragmentation of power will frustrate the crooks and empower the uniters. It won’t just be politicians, by the way. In just a few months, “ANC whisperers” and “liberal-to-socialist translators” are going to be greatly in demand in Pretoria (seat of the executive branch) and Cape Town (seat of the legislative branch). If you know someone who can help Marxists, liberals, trade unionists, and woke college students strike a sustainable compromise, tell them that there are tens of millions of South African voters who might urgently require their services. 

Desmond Tutu’s South Africa

Desmond Tutu—archbishop of Johannesburg in the mid ’80s and of Cape Town from 1986 to 1996—was exactly the kind of person who would thrive in this new era. He loved arguing, and he was great at it too. He condemned apartheid and then preached forgiveness and reconciliation in its aftermath. He was admired by many people, but those same people often harshly criticized him because of his habit of calling out injustice wherever he saw it with consistency. He was a master communicator who could show you a disturbing truth rather than merely tell you about it. He passed away in 2021 and is sorely missed.

So, here’s my plan. If Jacob Zuma is right, then Jesus will return on or shortly after May 29. When He arrives, I’ll ask him to give us back Desmond Tutu to help guide us through this moment. If Zuma is as skilled at prophecy as he is at politics, then this is a rock-solid plan. But if Jesus doesn’t return to give us Tutu, then my only prayer is that a new generation of politicians will learn to embrace his politics. Tutu may be gone, but the legacy of his leadership lives on in our memory of his example. Of course, this is exactly the message of Woza Albert.

Just like when we invited the world to our shores to celebrate the FIFA World Cup with us in 2010, I should warn you that things are about to get very loud. Back then, concerns were raised over the (literally) deafening vuvuzela horns that South Africans like to use at stadiums. When he was asked what people should do about the problem, Tutu said they should “blow their vuvuzelas even louder.” A young nation like ours is no place to advocate for quiet, sterile democracy.  

It was Tutu who coined the term “the Rainbow Nation” to celebrate our diverse country. Now the Rainbow Nation is growing up to become the Vuvuzela Democracy—loud, rambunctious, and argumentative. I think he’d love it. 

Vusi Tyala is a South African data scientist (writing under a pseudonym).

Image: Performers in Gauteng province, South Africa, following their performance during the launch of the Freedom Month program by Minister Khumbudzo Ntshavheni and Zizi Kodwa. (Flickr: GovernmentZA)