South Africa

Democracy: More than just a vote

By J Brooks Spector 10 February 2014

The hasty courtship, marriage and divorce of the DA with Agang, the hiving off of the Economic Freedom Fighters, the ructions within COSATU and its unhappy member union, NUMSA, and rumours that all is not well within the ANC itself all point to a gradual realigning of South Africa’s political landscape in the future. But in the meantime, the country’s citizens are now locked in a national political system where their impact is essentially limited to a solitary vote, once every five years. Moreover, because of the minimal amount of engagement, politicians and parties have very little real insight about the views of the nation’s citizens – and voters. This must change. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a first cut at these issues.

In the past several months, it has become increasingly clear a new South African political landscape is beginning to emerge from within the familiar contours of the old one. On the one hand, while the DA and Agang amalgamation proved, in the end, to be abortive, it also showed there might now be a hunger for an eventual coalescence of the liberal centre. That is, a pro-growth, economic liberalism, that would come paired with older, traditional liberal political values among a growing number of South Africans.

Simultaneously, the slow unravelling of the leftwards side of the ANC’s traditional power-base is proceeding as well. This includes not only the hiving off of Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters and NUMSA’s distancing from the ANC, but also a seemingly increasingly frequent, even unstoppable progression of those service delivery protests that erupt in township after township that must now be an increasingly alarming phenomenon for the ANC. This must be astonishing to the ANC, as long-time observer Jonny Steinberg recently noted in his article, Magic of protest slips beyond ANC’s grasp, since these protests are coming up against the very basis of the party’s heretofore impregnable hold on those very townships.

Meanwhile, within the ANC itself it seems increasingly evident that there are splits within. Support for the incumbent president as the party’s leader and standard-bearer in the upcoming 7 May election and a lock-hold on government-funded patronage is just about the only real glue holding it all together anymore.

In the meantime, however, if someone were actually trying to become a better-informed citizen, he or she actually has very little information to work with, as opposed to a wide swathe of commentator opinions, to work with. And it’s a good bet the political parties and many of their politicians aren’t all that much better informed themselves – relying on their own brands of conventional wisdom and old ideas about the country.

By this point in the electoral cycle, of course, the nation’s political analysts are now writing furiously (including many right here on this Daily Maverick website) in an effort to tease out the shape of future developments and likely results and their meaning for the country’s future. But, far too often, for many, the results have been like holding a wet forefinger up in the air, trying to ascertain which way the wind is blowing from such a crude indicator. And then, of course, in their various explanations, often seem to emulate that overused metaphor of the committee of blind wise men who touched the different parts of an elephant’s anatomy in order to describe the complete nature of the beast.

The bottom line for the analysts, too often, is that they are relying on their personal experiences, some insights, some guesses, and even the occasionally proffered leaks from political players so as to get an accurate sense of the now-changing landscape. But, even for them, there is virtually no hard data that helps them explain – let alone allow for them to make predictions beyond the obvious – about what would-be voters are making of all this this increasingly frenetic political activity.

In almost every other democracy on Earth, commentaries from analysts, as well as statements from candidates and parties, are just one part of the larger texture of political activity that is part of any run-up to an election.  (And, of course, the election results become the one final test of things, regardless of any analysts’ views.) Instead, in most nations, there is veritable a flood of publicly available polling data and attitude surveys – as well as interpretations of what this all means for the candidates as well as the electorate.

In other nations, one sees frequent “horse race” and voter preference polls – who is ahead and by how much – as well as a plethora of survey data that speaks to citizen opinions about the issues that matter to them, their sense of candidates’ viability as people who can help the country, as well as the candidates’ positions on those issues and concerns voters have that have not yet found their way into a candidate’s positions or a party’s positions. First, of course, this kind of information is of real interest to potential voters – if for no other reason than that can help confirm or alter voter views about what a candidate or party says are its views and goals. Secondly, however, it also provides actual tangible data for analysts to use when they try to explain what is happening and why. Yes, of course, their hunches and insights will still matter, especially from the best ones, but now they will be rooted in some actual information that can back up an argument with real data.

But thirdly, this information becomes of inestimable value to the candidates and parties as well. They can take the temperature, the pulse of the nation, to figure out what really motivates people, what makes them angry, sad, worried or pleased – and how ordinary people frame their own political universes. A smart candidate or party will draw upon such information to shape their message and policy prescriptions to respond to such realities – or even to use this information to decide what constitutes a teachable moment for the public.

Given a particular attitude identified in the data, they can think about what a party does to guide, lead and educate the public about the reality that confronts the nation.  The real deal for such survey data is that it becomes part of a much larger feedback loop that includes active, involved citizenry and media analysis as part of an continuing, multilevel engagement with politicians and parties. This could help replace today’s binary dynamic, a set of alternatives that seems to be either ‘love the party’ or ‘engage in violent protest’ – a split rapidly becoming the predominant vocabulary of South Africa’s political discourse.

Undoubtedly there are some who will argue that a great increase in survey data will somehow cheapen the dialogue of politics, forcing politicians to react to the ‘who’s ahead’ tone of such horse race results. Or, worse, that the surveys can’t really be trusted anyway – that people will not tell you what they really think for fear of retribution or worse.

Back in 1936, in the US presidential race between President Franklin Roosevelt and Kansas Governor Alf Landon, the editors of the then-popular magazine Literary Digest decided the magazine should draw upon the then-infant science of survey research to predict the election’s outcome. In the midst of the Great Depression, they sent postcards to some ten million people (!), asking them to pick their choice for president. They drew upon the names and addresses of people from magazine subscription lists, car registration lists, lists of the holders of telephone numbers, and membership in a whole range of clubs. Two million people dutifully returned their postcards – making it one of the largest responses to a single survey ever carried out in the US.

That survey predicted a landslide for Landon, something, of course, that did not happen. Roosevelt won his second term in a sweeping victory, carrying all but two small states (Vermont and Maine) and gaining over 60% of the popular vote. The Literary Digest researchers had two major – subsequently identified – flaws in methodology.

The first was not being aware of respondent self-selection bias, instead of going for responses from a random sample of those they had asked. Instead, the results only included those who chose to respond. The problem was that such people held different views than the larger population. Moreover, and even more importantly, the master list they used to start with was seriously unrepresentative of the national population – let alone the potential voter pool, or the actual voters in the election. In the midst of the Depression, millions of citizens had no phones, no cars or club memberships, nor magazine subscriptions – preferring to spend their desperately scarce resources on food, clothing and shelter instead.

Not too surprisingly, the editors of The Literary Digest were thoroughly embarrassed by the result, and the journal went out of business shortly afterwards, to general ignominy.

These days, of course, the methodologies of polling are much better understood and results for those horse race polls can be deadly accurate, as worldwide evidence shows. Attitude surveys require careful planning, but can be nearly as accurate – depending on how the questions are phrased and the selection of people to be asked is managed.  Most importantly, for many elections, extensive polling provides great amounts of data that builds up over time to give complex portraits of voters and what (or who) floats their boats.

In that sense, in the UK, the US, throughout much of Europe, in Japan and many other places, polling has become an indispensible part of the landscape for understanding elections, voter views and campaigns – but not yet in South Africa. Here, except for an occasional survey close to the date of the election, there is only the actual election every five years – and, of course, the confidential polls carried out by the larger political parties. But that data rarely enters the public realm – and so it neither informs voter perceptions nor affects the national dialogue about the country’s political future.

As a result, here is a proposal to change all that. Let several independent private media houses agree to pool resources sufficient to support an on-going, detailed, thorough survey process and to bring this process to fruition under the aegis of interested universities and think tanks to give the whole process real respectability. And then, to do it right, harness the experience and sophistication of research companies that already routinely do such work for dozens of companies. Then make certain the resulting data is made freely available to all parties and all media outlets -under the combined auspices of the sponsors and organisers.

While this would be an immediate improvement over the current paucity of data in the public space, it is still not sufficient. Throughout the world, public debates between candidates have become a fixture of political life – but, again, not in South Africa. It is too simple to say that candidates and parties can routinely present their case in the media via interviews and signed opinion pieces. Instead, what is really needed is some of the cut and thrust of real, unrehearsed, unfettered debate among candidates.

Now someone is sure to say at this juncture, “Wait just a minute, it is easy to do that in America where only two (or more rarely three) candidates contesting an election. What do we do in a country that has dozens of parties?” The answer is to follow the examples from other nations.

Perhaps there can be a threshold for candidates – a party needs to have scored, say, 5% or more of the support from the public as measured by the polls, before being allowed to join in a debate, or perhaps there could be several such debates – one for major parties and others for the rest. Japan, for example, has several televised debates before each election and any party with representatives in the nation’s parliament gets a say on air. Britain, the newest entrant to the national political debate process, had a three-sided debate, and it was vastly entertaining to audiences – especially once the candidates got into the swing of it – and even informative to the voters, it is said.

In such debates, the public gets to judge directly the measure of the candidates vying for their votes – under pressure of having to respond directly, and without spin-doctors able to tidy up the messes left on stage. This may make politics in South Africa more presidential than parliamentary, but the truth of the matter is that it is the president who matters most anyway in a system that relies upon party list proportional representation. (There is room for another debate as to whether presidential candidate selection should be more open to a much broader array of potential voters and constituencies than is practiced now, as well as whether proportional representation still serves the nation best, but those arguments can be held over for another day and another article.)

In fact, upon further thinking about this question, it becomes clear that the country already has had an excellent experience with precisely this kind of debate in the past. A generation earlier, at the Codesa debates, even as the country was trying to get a fix on a possible future that would not let loose a civil conflict, the nation was held spellbound (at least those with access to TV and radio). Every party involved in the Codesa debates had their chance to join in the fray. And those were issues at least as critical as any of today’s debates. Moreover, the result of those debates was not a disaster. Rather, the broadcast of Codesa became an enormous help, educating a very wary, frightened nation.

The actual arrangements cannot be the barrier either. Rather, getting a commitment to participate from the big players is the real key. They have to believe that speaking directly to the nation is in their interest, rather than their hiding behind all that bluster about the mechanics of the country’s politics. Or, put another way, they must come to believe that improving the citizens’ understanding of the nation’s issues matters more than the theatrics of delivering food parcels or carrying out some kind of circus act of a march on another party’s headquarters.

As far as broadcasting these events, surely this should be one of the primary responsibilities of that much-maligned national public broadcaster. They have multiple channels for simultaneous broadcasts of various language voice-overs, and thus any candidate should be allowed to speak in whatever language they feel most comfortable using. And why not? The country has eleven official languages and so candidates should feel they can use their language preference, as long as the interpreters are better than the unforgettable Thamsanqa Jantjies.

While we are at this, there is still another area to be cleaned up. And it is a really big one. And that, of course, is the nature of campaign funding in South Africa. Right now, there is virtually no regulation of this process. Anonymous donors – foreign and domestic – seem to have easy, nearly unfettered opportunities to make their monetary vote count.

While it is not clear from comparative experiences worldwide that a big campaign contribution necessarily means a directly related change in a policy adopted by a winning party that gains the government, most contributors actually crave access and influence on future decisions by virtue of that newly-earned access, rather than the too-simple one-for-one trade-off of big gouts of cash equals favourable decisions. The latter is rather too crass (and technically illegal in most jurisdictions) for most contributors.

So, if one wants to make this better controlled – although it can never really be ended completely since the devious minds of really clever lawyers and accountants can always find some way forward – make it mandatory for parties to declare every campaign contribution, place monetary limits on total contributions from any one individual or corporation, and insist no contribution can come from a foreign entity or person. And make sure the resulting contribution lists are publicly available. Make violations of these regulations criminal offences. Period.

In sum, the goals of this package of reforms are simple. They would help open up the political process, build real input and constant feedback into the process and ensure the nation’s citizen’s views, rather than shadowy backhanders from sleazy influence peddlers, will matter more in picking a nation’s leaders. Could carrying out this package of reforms make things worse than the political swamp South Africa is already finding itself in now? DM

Photo: Early morning voters wait to cast their votes during the South African municipal elections in Cape town May 18 2011. REUTERS/Mark Wessels


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