As the final ballots of South Africa’s fifth post-apartheid election were tallied on Friday 9 May 2014, the governing African National Congress (ANC) celebrated another victory with their resounding 62 percent of the vote. The official opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), came in second with 22.2 percent, up from their 16.7 percent in 2009.
These results came as no surprise, and even though many hoped for a stronger opposition, South Africans have much cause for celebration. Not for the individual results of the particular party they choose to support, but for the way in which the various opposing worldviews co-exist side by side, allowing for a peaceful political arena instead of the violent transitions that haracterise many African nations.
It is true that the South African political scene is still far from ideal. In a recent discussion on one of the national radio stations, a political analyst dissected these latest elections, and after nearly an hour of dialogue came to the following conclusion: “After 20 years of democracy, we still don’t know why people vote what they vote”. This has certainly been one of the enigmas in South African politics. For years, South Africans complain about services, riot about corruption and protest about incompetence, but come election time, they vote for the same leaders that will once again generate anger for the next five years.
Analysts are often perplexed by official results that did not reflect in the pre-election polls and the question is indeed a legitimate one: “why do people vote what they vote, and why are South Africa’s politics unique within an African context?”
Instead of looking for answers in the political arena, the answer can be found in the worldviews and cultural alignments of voters. Roland Muller, in his book Honour and Shame: Unlocking the Door, gives an eye-opening account of how worldviews determine cultural behaviour and ultimately translate into political conviction.
All cultures are rooted in worldviews, and Muller suggests that there are “three basic planes on which worldviews function”, creating extremes and tensions. These three core worldviews are differentiated as: a) guilt and innocence b) shame and honour, and c) fear and power.
Muller explains that the influence of sin in all humankind brings about one of three emotional responses – guilt, shame or fear – and it is these emotional reactions that determine our cultural behaviour.
Guilt and Innocence
Adam and Eve, when confronted with the knowledge of their sin, knew the pull of guilt on their consciences. This typifies much of today’s Western culture, which is driven by the concepts of guilt and innocence.
In Romans, Paul famously presents the Gospel in the courtroom terms of guilt and forgiveness. This has defined the Gospel in Western minds ever since. Our Western society is dominated by a worldview of ‘right and wrong’, and political convictions and voting persuasions in the Western world are based on ‘right policies’ and ‘acceptable politics’.
Shame and Honour
Adam and Eve not only came to know right from wrong, but they also experienced shame. Genesis 3:8 records that when “they heard the sound of the LORD”, Adam and Eve “hid themselves” from Him.
Even though the Gospel is understood in Western culture in terms of guilt and innocence, Jesus lived and taught in an honour-based culture. Much of the Old Testament is written in honour-based terms to people with little sense of personal guilt.
Today, the Middle East and Arab world operate largely according to a worldview of honour and shame. While individualism is accepted and admired in the West, conformity to the group is celebrated and pursued in Middle Eastern and Arab countries. Islam, by its definition, calls its followers to conform to the point of submission, and public prayers and universal fasting encourage this conformity. Every Arab desires to be honourable, and conforming to the group identity is a means of retaining one’s honour. This desire to avoid shame and maintain honour would dictate one’s political allegiances in the Middle East and Arab world.
Fear and Power
Adam and Eve also came to understand and feel the presence of fear. They knew their guilt, felt deep shame, and feared being exposed and punished by God. So they hid themselves. Today, fear-based cultures are primarily found in Africa, Central and South America, and some islands in the Far East.
In some nations, there are deep tensions between worldviews and clashes between cultures. As an example, Muller writes about how Native Americans would choose to die rather than to face the shame of living on a reservation, and Muller attributes this to a clash of guilt/innocence and shame/honour cultures. In South Africa, tensions are equally evident between the two worldviews of guilt/innocence and fear/power.
The Nkandla saga is a telling example. Within the Western mindset of guilt/innocence, spending R250 million on upgrading Mr Zuma’s personal residence is quite simply WRONG. From a fear/power worldview, the upgrade has little to do with what is right or wrong, but is a clear indication of power and an expression of leadership. This was not only the ‘right’ thing to do within an African culture, but also the expected thing to do. Before the elections, Mr Zuma confidently stated that the Nkandla saga would not affect the voters of the ANC, and voting results show that it did not.
If the opposition understood the fear/power worldview, there could have been a different approach with different results. The challenge within the South African context, where people with different worldviews share common political goals, is to address people from the appropriate cultural starting points, so that the critical issues can be heard, understood, discussed and tackled.
So why should South Africans be grateful for the results of the recent elections?
Firstly, it is important to recognise that the opposition party does not share the same worldview as the ruling party. The guilt/innocence worldview forms the platform for the DA’s critical opposition which is necessary for a true democracy, but this worldview will not pursue violent reactions or strategies. If Mr Julius Malema’s EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters) party were to be the official opposition, it would mean that two groups rooted in fear/power worldviews would be opposing one another, and violence would be an expected consequence. Such a tension was evident in the early years of South Africa’s new democracy when
the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) members were frequently involved in violent clashes with ANC supporters.
Violent political conflict in Africa often originates when the leading political party and the official opposition are both rooted in a
power-based culture that finds the ultimate solution for conflict in displays of power through violence. A ‘saving grace’ for South Africa is therefore found in the fact that the two leading political parties function according to two different worldviews.
It was this same scenario that saved South Africa from a bloodbath in 1994 when Mr de Klerk handed over power to Mr Mandela. In an African context where fear/ power dictates political transitions, this was a unique and miraculous event where power was submitted peacefully because ‘it was the right thing to do’.
The second reason why South Africans can be grateful for the results of the recent elections is that the current political change is slow but progressive, not a dramatic change that challenges the worldview of the ruling party. Such a change could be disastrous. Most voters who function according to a guilt/innocence (right/wrong) worldview desire change for South Africa, but change in a fear/power context needs to be gradual or the consequences could be violent. Those who desire change need to understand that gradual change is necessary in order to secure a free future. Dramatic political changes have never been good in an African context, and South Africa would be no exception.
Thank God for His wisdom and strategic intervention. Freedom in South Africa is key for mission endeavours in Africa and beyond, and this freedom will be maintained by South Africans seeking to understand the cultural worldviews of their neighbours and patiently working towards a culture of co-existence and mutual respect.