OPINION: South Africans must fight for change through the ballot

This article first appeared on _ The Conversation._

South African society has not been this saturated with anger and protest since the late 1980s. The previous 12 months have witnessed a decisive shift in the country's political consciousness.

With the local government elections set to take place within the next seven months, it is worth considering what the broader meaning of this shift will be for the country's political future.

During the last year, the middle class found its voice and the sights of the new protest spirit ignited by #RhodesMustFall quickly moved from one target to the next.

Encouraged by early victorious protests, the black middle class in particular put the country on notice that large swathes of society are deeply frustrated. The focus of their frustration is the fact that South Africa is still characterised by (racial) inequality, poverty and growing unemployment. This, almost 22 years after the dawn of democracy.

Elections hold the key

Following occasionally violent protests against institutional racism and unaffordable fees at universities, the most recent bout of public outrage was focused on interpersonal racism.

While social media initially erupted in rightful condemnation of vile racist utterances, the discussion quickly degenerated into an ugly racial mudslinging contest.

The emergence of such public outrage and heightened racial tension in the face of the government's failed transformation project begs the question: what are the implications of this frustration for the future of South Africa's democracy?

The answer will emerge through the results of the upcoming local government elections. It will be the country's most important election to date. It provides the first true test of whether South Africans intend to use their votes to address their grievances by holding the government democratically accountable.

Consolidating democracy

The election results may reveal that #AllMustFall was the best thing that could have happened to the struggling country.

If frustrated voters (many of whom live in metropolitan areas) use their democratic power to deliver a blow to the African National Congress's (ANC) dominance in key municipalities, it would signal voters' willingness to address the structural causes of their despondence. It would also be a step beyond protest. These battleground municipalities include Nelson Mandela Bay, Tshwane and Johannesburg,

Even with all of its historical complexities, there is no escaping the fact that a government which has had an overwhelming electoral mandate for the past two decades bears ultimate responsibility for the failures which have so inflamed South Africans' collective passions.

Unaffordable education and increased racial tensions are but the symptoms of the failing contemporary societal structure maintained by the ANC.

It is this structure, characterised by corruption, policy flux and maladministration, which is holding South Africa back and causing tensions to rise across society.

In this context of widespread anger and frustration, holding the ANC accountable for these failures is the only way to begin to repair this broken structure.

Even more significantly, it would serve as a powerful signal of society's trust in democracy as the ultimate mechanism to address the country's stagnation.

Undermining democracy

But voters might make a misdiagnosis. They may overlook the structural causes and instead place the blame for their frustrations on minorities and the symptoms of South Africa's current malaise, such as an unequal education system and persistent racism.

The clearest sign of this would be if, despite society's conspicuous anger, the ANC simply retains its dominant position.

The message from voters to the ANC would be unambiguous:

We are furious because we know that the country is backsliding, but we refuse to hold you even partially responsible.

It is an endorsement which would exceed the dreams of even the most arrogant political party. More ominously, this result would also signal that citizens have greater faith in protest to resolve their grievances, than in the ballot box.

Such an outcome would be in line with the sentiment expressed by some #FeesMustFall protesters that the only language government understands, is violence.

This is dangerous nonsense. In a democracy, the language best understood by any political party is the language of voting. Failing to acknowledge this basic fact would simply leave the current corrupted societal structure in place.

It would also undermine the country's democracy. Having rejected the option of fostering change through the ballot box, the only option open to an already disillusioned society would be escalating violence.

A glimpse into the future

History has repeatedly shown that vocal protests by an engaged citizenry against societal injustice, combined with voters who use the ballot box to hold their government responsible for such injustice, is the recipe for a vibrant, consolidating democracy.

But angry protests against injustice, combined with a failure to hold accountable the same government that maintains injustice, pose an existential threat to any democracy. The 2016 local elections will begin to reveal which future South Africa has chosen.

Leon Schreiber is a research specialist, Innovations for Successful Societies, Princeton University.