South Africa

While we wait for the results – Contemplating democracy

By J Brooks Spector 8 May 2014

The counting of the votes in South Africa’s election continues, with the results likely available by midday on Thursday. While this process carries on, J. BROOKS SPECTOR contemplates the paradox of voting and how it fits into the larger picture of active citizenship.

South Africa’s fifth democratic election proceeded throughout 7 May in the kind of glorious late autumn weather that may have helped generate the heavy turnout (at least in urban areas) that must have given encouragement to political leaders of all persuasions with hopes their respective supporters had come out to cast their ballots. Theodore H. White, the chronicler of four American presidential elections in his “Making of the President” series between 1960 to 1972 – books that virtually created the election narrative genre – almost always painted the picture of election day with a nod towards the prevailing weather as a sub rosa guide to the national psyche. One wonders what kind of symbolic meanings White would have found in South Africa’s glorious weather for a reading of the national temperament and state of mind.

Of course, as this article was finished, the nation’s 22,000-plus polling stations had just closed, as all voters who had arrived by nine in the evening were permitted to vote. Especially in urban polling places, people had turned out in unexpectedly large numbers (apparently significantly over 80% in the country’s big cities, according to media reports, although lower than that in districts in parts of rural Limpopo), while it was far too early to get much of a sense of things from the first scattered results. Earlier in the day, one poll watcher told this writer than at her particular polling station, while the IEC had planned for about two thousand voters there, already by late afternoon, over three thousand persons had actually cast ballots there.

Given that people voted with two paper ballots – one for the national selection and one for the provincial vote – the actual counting to establish actual totals would only begin after the polls closed. And so, the initial, fragmentary results were just being reported around eleven in the evening local time. According to some IEC officials, almost all results should be tallied by midday on Thursday.

Even so, if the country’s political analysts and the various pre-election surveys are right, the broad outlines of the results are already predictable. The most likely scenario is a substantial national victory for the ANC of at least 60%, a DA tally of somewhere north of 20%, a surprisingly strong figure for new boy on the block Economic Freedom Fighters of upwards of 6% or so of the electorate. And all remaining parties will divide up what remains. But that remains a guess until statistically significant totals are finally known, some time during Thursday, 8 May.

Despite the possibility of a lower than anticipated level of participation in parts of Limpopo, it seems the majority of South Africans have taken to the actual act of voting with fierce enthusiasm. This was true even though there apparently were scattered public protests on Election Day (presumably not against the actual concept of voting itself). Moreover, some would-be voters publicly insisted they would not vote as an act of protest against social, political or economic conditions; some voters obviously heeding the call to spoil their ballots; and a significant number of could-be, first-time, new voters failed to register for the nation’s election and therefore could not vote even if they had changed their minds closer to the actual day of voting.

That South Africans have largely embraced the importance of voting should be no particular surprise. Given the country’s painful history and the hard struggle to achieve the universal franchise under a non-racial Constitution, it seems perfectly reasonable the vast majority of citizens would be eager voters. That said, while the number of voters has continued to grow over the years since 1994, the actual percentage of eligible voters who vote has been trending downward, election after election since that first all-inclusive election.

In that sense, South African voters are beginning to behave increasingly like voters in other longer-standing democratic societies, except where voting is mandatory such as in Australia. Social psychologists and political scientists have argued there are two likely main reasons for non-voting – and both could be operating in many cases for different voters.

The first is a sense that non-voters are generally acceptant of the prevailing political order, regardless of who wins an election. The other, of course, is that non-participants are so alienated from the system, they believe nothing they do could make any difference in the way things are. One response is broadly affirming of the prevailing order, the other is profoundly at odds with it and alienated from it.

And that, in turn, should lead one to consider just how would-be voters explain their individual acts of voting to themselves. Most people recognise that under almost any conceivable circumstances, their one vote cannot possibly make a difference to the final outcome. Voting specialists argue, for example, that the very process of voting, and especially vote counting, inevitably introduces mistakes into the results. And this does not even include circumstances where there has been straightforward vote theft or the destruction of ballots.

For example, in even an honestly conducted election, there can be ballots that are ambiguously marked (recall those infamous dimpled and hanging chads in Florida in the 2000 US presidential election that became the subject of increasingly tired, cranky human judgements as to whether to count them or not, and for whom), or even marked for multiple choices. But worse still, the simple arithmetical process of counting votes inevitably introduces mistakes as well – not enormous ones, usually, but perhaps enough to affect an outcome in a very close election. In recognition of this very circumstance, in various American states, while laws differ state-by-state, full recounts are automatically triggered if the difference between two candidates comes to less than a certain very low percentage of the total votes cast in a particular race.

As a result of all this, the paradox for voting is that an individual voter must make an act of faith and imagination that their participation in voting is an important part of a larger group activity by fellow citizens. In this, it becomes the simultaneous holding of two diametrically opposite truths. On the one hand, a person understands their vote is a miniscule contribution to the larger process, even as there is the understanding that in the aggregate, their meaningless act can lead to something much larger and more meaningful. This is the case even as each voter knows; his or her vote is effectively meaningless in the selection of a victor. (This writer has been following anguished musings of many social media contacts, debating clear through the day over which party they could support – as if the entire election hung in the balance on the basis of that one, individual choice.)

There is, of course, another deeper assumption at work here. And that the belief that making any choice at all ultimately contributes to a different set of outcomes in policies and government direction. And that goes to the heart of whether a person believes larger, deeper social and economic forces are at work in creating the political environment than that act of voting.

The key for most voters is in an individual’s voluntary sublimation in a much larger national process.  In that sense, voting is one of the very few things that all of a nation’s citizens do together, regardless of any differences in class, age, sex, income or race or geography. This, in turn, means that while the result of all this voting may – or may not – shuffle the names of elected officials for the next limited period of time, it also, provides citizens with a clear understanding they are not just subjects of rulers. Instead, officials are in their places by virtue of “the consent of the governed” – a concept that comes to contemporary thinking by way of nearly three centuries of musings from Locke, Rousseau, Burke, Jefferson and Lincoln, among others, and the revolutionary political changes their ideas ultimately helped inspire.

That, in turn, leads to still other questions. In a democratic state, is this periodic, once-in-five-years’ activity necessary and sufficient to sustain a democracy? In recent years, someone like the former union leader and government minister and now independent social activist Jay Naidoo has been championing what he has termed active citizenship. Historically, in the final years of increasingly broad-based popular opposition to Apartheid, the country had evolved an active civic culture – with thousands of organisations throughout the country, operating in many different social and economic sectors – and not always in line with one particular political body. But following the advent of the 1994 Constitution, a growing number of these organisations in opposition atrophied away, their work was finished, perhaps, or substantially altered in substance, as they became service providers for government programs – and as partners to government.

Naidoo and others like him have been calling for a resurgence of the culture of active citizenship to provide South Africans with numerous alternative, increasingly routine avenues for participation in the processes and decision-making of the political system. The ideas for active citizenship go back well beyond South Africa’s current circumstances, of course. Fifty years after the American experiment first began, French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville was asked by his government to visit America to study its criminal justice and penal systems to find useful pointers for the reform of France’s own circumstances. Increasingly intrigued by America, de Tocqueville stayed for six months and travelled the entire country, poking into every aspect of its public life.

While De Tocqueville can be seen as a conservative critic, he also was adept at picking out the revolutionary ideas in the country’s makeup and analysing them closely. In that sense, he correctly sussed out the fact active citizenship was actually key to the vitality of the country’s political life, something that was well beyond routine elections.

As de Tocqueville wrote in the deeply influential book, Democracy in America, “Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society…

“Nothing, in my opinion, is more deserving of our attention than the intellectual and moral associations of America. The political and industrial associations of that country strike us forcibly; but the others elude our observation, or if we discover them, we understand them imperfectly because we have hardly ever seen anything of the kind. It must be acknowledged, however, that they are as necessary to the American people as the former, and perhaps more so. In democratic countries the science of association is the mother of science; the progress of all the rest depends upon the progress it has made.”

The presumed decline of those voluntary associations in the US in the 1980s and 90s – including most especially community sports leagues – detailed in Robert Putnam’s controversial study, “Bowling Alone”, was seen as a key aspect in America’s troublesome, growing retreat from a tradition of active citizenship. This view, of course, only just predated the rise of Internet and social media-fuelled protest organisations and political movements – such as Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party structures – all of which seemed to argue it was far too early to write off the importance of de Tocqueville’s voluntary associations.

In effect, De Tocqueville had made the case that active citizenship was the key to broad participation in the country’s politics, and that, in turn, was the best guarantee to keep governments in line and responsive to their citizens. For South Africa, as in so many other places, this similarly means that while elections are obviously necessary for the practice of a democratic culture, they are not the sufficient condition for it.

For South Africa, it can be argued that beyond a belief in the individual impact of participation in a national election, going forward, a revival of active citizenship will matter a great deal to keep citizens tied closely to the monitoring of their government’s behaviour. But beyond even those two concepts, it can be argued that what the country also needs is much more voting, more often, and for many more offices.

By comparison, the usual estimate for the US is that some 800,000 public offices are up for periodic elections – from president to municipal animal control officer. With a population about one sixth of America’s, other things being equal, there could be more than 100,000 elected offices in this country as well, rather than just the several thousand that currently exist. While one can argue such a landscape would over-politicise government functions, surely that could not be more so than the current system of cadre deployment that fills so many official positions throughout government with political loyalists.

While it can also be argued that holding so many elections is inefficient and wasteful of the time and energy of voters and officials, the corresponding virtue is that provides a continuing way to “throw the rascals out” whenever that seems appropriate to citizens. (Of course, some critics respond further that all this does is provide for a meaningless “circulation of elites,” without fundamental change, but perhaps that is the theme for another extended discussion.)

Finally, there is yet another argument about the reinvigoration of South Africa’s active citizenship. And that, of course, is the vexed question of the effectiveness of a national list proportional representation system versus constituency-based voting in representing the interests of individual and groups of interested citizens.

This question also deserves a much larger debate, but for this election day discussion at least, the issue should not be left as an “either-or” question. There are other variants such as a mixed constituency and proportional system or the multi-member constituency system – both of which help preserve the possibility smaller parties with alternative ideas still find oxygen in the formal electoral system.

South Africa’s 2014 election almost certainly will lead not to a starkly different political landscape than the one that came out of the previous election – even though new parties have arisen to address the political aspirations of citizens who felt left out of the choices previously offered and their voices in parliament will make the debates there much more interesting. There is, of course, the looming possibility of a new union-based party of the left that would have a real impact on the 2019 election. But that is for the future.

Meanwhile, it is increasingly clear to most observers that the current system, with its still-limited ways of participation in the formal political system, will come under growing strains in future. As a result, the current system is not a final answer, but merely the first version of how to encompass the political urges and desires of the nation’s citizens. DM

Read more:

  • “Democracy in America”, Chapter Five, Book Two, “Of The Use Which The Americans Make Of Public Associations In Civil Life”, by Alexis de Tocqueville, available at the University of Virginia.

Photo: A t-shirt bearing the face of President Jacob Zuma hangs on a washing line as people make their way to the voting stations at the Hospital Hill informal settlement in south of Johannesburg, South Africa, 07 May 2014. South Africans started voting in general elections expected to keep the ruling African National Congress in power, even if polls said it could lose votes over corruption and enduring poverty. About 25 million voters headed out for the nation’s fifth general election since the end of apartheid 20 years ago. EPA/IHSAAN HAFFEJEE

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