APRIL's national and provincial elections generated a good deal of excitement among commentators and activists. As these elections fade in the memory, however, and strikes and community protests once again dominate the front pages, two old questions about the country's electoral politics have begun to loom large.

The first concerns the electoral dominance of the African National Congress (ANC). A dominant party's reign will always come to an end, but when? And will the ANC's dominance be followed by multiparty democracy, political instability, or authoritarian single party rule?

We seem further from knowing the answers than ever. Recent speculation has cast the Congress of the People (COPE) as harbinger of a fully competitive system, and the Democratic Alliance (DA) as a dynamic force able to break the glass ceiling that separates it from African electors.

Sceptics have countered that the DA is irredeemably compromised by race, and that COPE and the Inkatha Freedom Party will soon be absorbed by the ruling ANC. Even if a multiparty system emerges, critics have claimed, it will be dangerously unstable.

Half a century ago, Aristide Zolberg argued in a study of postcolonial w est African one- party states that scholarly debates about democracy's future can disguise what is really just a "quarrel between optimists and pessimists". Optimists forever search for "embryonic democracies" in the current order, celebrating the acceptance of certain modes of opposition politics and lauding a relatively free associational life. One-party democracy, for them, is always in transition towards a more deeply democratic order.

Pessimists, by contrast, see an embryonic totalitarian state in every political trend. If the dominant party does well, its "bandwagon" effect will supposedly debilitate the opposition. If it does badly, political instability - and an authoritarian counter-reaction - is certain to follow. Such doom-mongers assume that Africans' ideological pursuit of unity will eventually "de-legitimise" all political opposition.

The intellectual syndrome Zolberg identified in 1960s west Africa is alive and well in SA today. Political analysts and scholars are sincerely searching for truth, but we are at heart mostly just optimists or pessimists, scratching around for scraps of evidence to justify our pre- existing sentiments about the country's future.

The second big question that post-election unrest poses is what role elections can really perform in SA's political life. The official answer is that election time is when ordinary people decide who should lead them and which policies they should implement. Citizens, however, already realise that this account is very much at odds with reality.

SA will continue to have elections, of course. Modern states are too populous for decision-making in open meetings, and egalitarian doctrines preclude any leader (even Tokyo Sexwale) from declaring his divine right to rule. But elections may cease to be "legitimising events" that generate belief in a state's unquestionable authority.

The official ideology of democracy emphasises that, since elections are available, the people cannot legitimately adopt extralegal methods to secure their goals. By participating in elections, moreover, citizens implicitly accept responsibility for what government does. After all, they have ostensibly chosen policies and selected leaders at the ballot box.

The people themselves seem increasingly unwilling to embrace this interpretation of democratic process. The ANC persuaded just 39% of potential voters to support it this year, compared with 47% in 1999 and 54% in 1994. For the second national election in a row, more eligible electors did not vote than supported the ruling party. Opposition parties are even more unpopular. Meanwhile citizens have been protesting energetically for a more democratic society in which goods and opportunities are more widely and fairly distributed.

This may be bad news for the political system. Elections can serve as the great festivals of modern politics in which commitment towards the formal political process is periodically renewed. Voting generates the popular legitimacy required to maintain peace and to justify the state's monopolies of violence and taxation.

Force is no substitute for consent, and a poor country cannot develop when its popular attitudes are dominated by resistance or by surly resignation. If this society is to thrive and its economy to grow, rulers need to find new ways to carry enthusiastic citizens along with them. They cannot simply extract, once every five years, a grudging endorsement from a shrinking minority of the country's people.

- Butler teaches politics at Wits.