In a general election where South African voters participated at lower rates than ever before, those who cast their ballot primarily put forward five political parties. These include the African National Congress, the Democratic Alliance, the uMkhonto WeSizwe Party, the Economic Freedom Fighters and the Inkatha Freedom Party.  

The election results have lessons for both the politicians and citizens. In his June 2023 article, ‘Populists aren’t so popular: Americans should want something better’, James M. Hohman states that “politicians are elected based on popularity”.  

Whilst political popularity brings with it power, it also brings with it the sacred responsibility of governing on behalf of all South Africans. Politicians may miss this if they focus solely on the immediate task of crafting arrangements by dividing up positions of power in the national assembly and in the cabinet. But they must also remember that galvanising for votes is different from governing for citizens.  

As a politician, it is good that people express confidence in you. But in a democracy, a politician’s true value lies in delivering tangible development and economic and service delivery outcomes for citizens. In the case of South Africa, the pressing need is for politicians to use public resources to create a productive economy and reduce high levels of unemployment. It is also meant to reduce the high levels of crime, improve service delivery, address violence, and eliminate load-shedding whilst dealing with corruption.  

On May 27 2024, Associated Press published an article about Armenian protesters blocking the streets of the capital city and other parts of the country, demanding the resignation of Armenia’s prime minister Nikol Pashinyan and his government. Pashinyan arrived in power leading the 2018 waves of mass protests after dislodging the then-outgoing president Serj Sargsyan, who wanted to stay in power for a third consecutive term.  

Nikol Pashinyan was elected in a 59–42 vote by the National Assembly of Armenia to be their 16th Prime Minister. His party, Way Out Alliance, made a deal with the two other opposition parties in parliament, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation(ARF) and the Prosperous Armenia party, to form a government.  

But today, the very same people who voted him into power are now protesting against him and demanding his resignation, sparked by his government’s decision to return four border villages to their neighbour Azerbaijan. Interestingly, Pashinyan is now using the very police that were used against him six years ago against the protestors. This shows that no matter how popular politicians are at the time they ascend to power, they can fall out of favour if they take people for granted. 

Closer to home, in December 2017, the African National Congress elected Cyril Ramaphosa, following what Ramaphosa dubbed “nine wasted years” under Jacob Zuma as South Africa’s president. As he crisscrossed the country, leading citizen walks, buoyed by Hugh Masekela’s popular song,  Thuma Mina (Send me), the effect he had on voters was called Ramaphoria by commentators.  

In a country wrecked by violence, crime, corruption, corruption, lack of economic growth, unemployment, lack of service delivery and racial tensions, he came across as the Mandela-like figure that people hankered after.  

However, all those hopes were dashed as Ramaphosa presided over a lacklustre and unimpactful administration. Duma Gqubule, writing in the Sunday Times of 2 June 2024, characterised Ramaphosa’s years in power as “six wasted years”. He went on to say that history books will show that Ramaphosa “had the worst economic and political record in the history of any president during the first three decades of democracy since 1994”.  

For his part, Jason Burke wrote an article in The Guardian newspaper aboutHow South Africa’s ‘Ramaphoria’ turned into ‘Ramageddon’”, where corruption continued, lack of bold decisions to turn the economy around persisted, crime and violence abounded and service delivery problems worsened. This explains why, on 29 May 2024, South Africans went to the polls and for the first time in the history of our democracy, gave Ramaphosa’s ANC 40,2 % of the votes, well below the 51% mark for them to form a government. This development has sent shockwaves to the ruling establishment as they scurry around to form a coalition government over the next two weeks 

But it shouldn’t have, because they should have known that political popularity has a price to pay.  That price is the delivery of expected development outcomes. Those political leaders who will be sitting around the decision-making tables, including opposition leaders, hammering out a coalition government, must learn this lesson.  

Electoral politics is a transactional business where politicians want power and the people want their will to be respected. Sarah Cameron and Ian McAllister have written a paper called, ‘The decline of political leader popularity: Partisan dealignment and leader integrity in Australia’, where they state that “many studies have mapped a decline in citizens’ political trust and satisfaction with democracy”. The price politicians who do not deliver on people’s expectations based on the constitution is a continued loss of trust in them and democracy as a system of government.  

Likeability in politics is a shifting phenomenon and has an expiry date when the citizens are no longer happy. Behind what politicians experience as the people’s confidence in them lies the citizens’ experience of decades of dwindling standards of living, deepening poverty, unemployed, lack of economic growth.  

Instead of being addressed, potholes are getting bigger and deeper, and piles of rubbish are getting higher, polluting our environment. The continued growth of informal settlements, mismanagement of our infrastructure, leading to water and energy load-shedding continue to happen, signalling a worsening governance. 

At the heart of the social contract, symbolised by the election results, are the desires of ordinary citizens, business people and communities, for good governance where public resources are used for the benefit of the majority. The price politicians will pay is intense citizen scrutiny and high expectations for speedy resolution of their most urgent problems. Key among them is joblessness, poor economic policies, crime and corruption. If they think they have another year or two to play politics and deal with their coalition squabbles, what happened to Ramaphosa and Pashinyan will befall them too. 

The election outcome has a price for the citizens too. The lesson is this: good governance is not about emotions and affinity to personalities. At its crudest, it is a transactional process between the governed and the governors. Electing someone to power is like an investment in an asset and that places a huge responsibility on you to keep monitoring that it yields a return on your investment.  

Citizens must pay the price of staying engaged in affairs that relate to governance from now until the next elections, whether local or national. They cannot afford to disengage and let politicians do as they please. They need to constantly scrutinise, ask questions and speak out, and where possible, disinvest in certain politicians by not voting for them again. Thus, citizens must use their power and influence, using democratic and legal means to force government to deliver.  

We must also desist from corroding our own public amenities such as roads, robots, schools, libraries etc. Staying engaged means attending local community meetings, making inputs in the plans for our communities, holding councillors and members of parliaments to account and commenting on proposed pieces of legislation. It also means staying informed by partnering with civil society organisations that conduct research, lobby and advocate for the issues important to you.  



Patrick (Lonwabo Mepeni) Kulati is CEO of Good Governance Africa, Southern Africa Region. He is author of the book A Gap in the Cloud, a speaker, content creator, executive coach, and leader. The founder of Kulati Coaching, which equips professionals and organisations with personal and professional development, Patrick also runs The Blackman’s Coach which focuses on coaching and transforming young men to be enterprising, independent, responsible, and value-adding men. He has served as CEO for the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (Africa); CEO of the Paraffin Safety Association of Southern Africa; CEO of Habitat for Humanity SA and  National Director and CEO for SOS Children’s Villages in South Africa.