Long before Ronnie Kasrils had his public crisis of conscience, South African social activist and New York Times columnist, Osiame Molefe, declared that he would be spoiling his ballot in the 2014 elections. According to his piece in City Press, Molefe believes that clandestine private funding of party electioneering ultimately renders voting a futile charade. The Daily Maverick’s Ivo Vegter has also condoned abstention as a response to the nefarious list-based representation system.
Unlike Kasrils’ emotive bluster, Molefe and Vegter make sound rational arguments, and one could add several more reasons to draw a goatee and twirly moustache over Helen Zille’s mugshot (if you’re going to spoil a ballot, you may as well put some creative effort into it) rather than put an X next to her party’s name – or, better yet, spend 7 May at the beach.
But there is also one very good reason to vote. Even if the current system is evil and all you see on that ballot paper are rocks, hard places, devils and deep blue seas… you should still vote. For one simple reason:
At this stage in our democracy, it doesn’t really matter who is in power. What matters more is the regular and peaceful transition of power.
The regular and peaceful transfer – or diffusion – of power is the best way to achieve a political culture that is focused more on serving its people than ideological posturing. Taken to its logical extreme, it might even result in politicians that are forced to cooperate across political divides in order to get things done. And the most effective way to achieve this is not by putting politicians in power, but by removing them from it.
Our current one-party democracy renders Parliament at best exquisitely boring and at worst a pig-out of wanton rubber-stamping, cronyism and entrenchment. Any party that occupies more than 50% of the seats doesn’t really need to present particularly robust plans and arguments to Parliament in order to execute their affairs through it.
Many South Africans labour under the misapprehension that if the ANC gets less than 50% of the vote, it will be rendered irrelevant immediately as all the other parties join forces to gang up on it. But a more realistic scenario would be that it first mops up some of the smaller parties – those desperate to swap their votes for the illusion of relevance.
But then, as people come to terms with the fact that a weaker ANC does not mean the return of Apartheid or the end of their welfare payments (even in the most attritional swathes of creative destruction, programmes that work are not automatically dismantled), and begin to vote with their minds rather than their hearts, SA politics could – and should – be macadamised into several small parties that are forced to form coalitions in order to govern.
A magical thing happens when governments are forced into coalitions. It is summed up in one word. That word appears in the first sentence of the Wikipedia entry on coalition governments: “cooperate”. Imagine that! A government that is forced to cooperate in order to function.
Zweli Mkhize has warned that South Africa is not ready for this form of government. He said that while some European nations have comfortably “gone on without a government because no one could get a majority of the vote”, South Africa is “not ready for this because we are a new democracy”.
But he would say that, wouldn’t he? The truth of the matter is that the best way for a democracy to mature is precisely through the diversification of the vote. Then, if parties refuse to cooperate, citizens will quickly understand to what extent they rely on government for their basic services. The answer is: not as much as those parties would have them believe.
At the moment, political parties fight (local and provincial/national) elections according to manifestoes based on ideologies. The ANC is the proud liberator that will provide social security and upliftment. The DA will propel the country into a cosmopolitan future through economic growth. The EFF will take from the rich and give to the poor.
But behind the lofty rhetoric lie the mundane practicalities of protecting your citizens, teaching the kids, caring for the sick, laying pipes, screwing in those energy saving lightbulbs, taking out the garbage… Forget the ideologies; it’s difficult enough just to get the basics right.
This is the reason why, at this stage in our democracy, it doesn’t really matter who is in power: it’s not about why you’re going to do it, but how.
Here’s another lunatic thought. If coalitions are forged among parties, then the good and competent people in those parties might recognise each other, and begin to work together in a way that goes beyond dogmatic zeal in the direction of professional pride. In the private sector, when two companies work together, effective employees identify their most reliable and empowered counterparts, and gravitate towards them because they get things done. The same thing could happen in public administration. Perhaps, then, as delivery replaces posturing, new allegiances will evolve. And these may one day produce dominant political entities that deserve and receive majority support for their efficacy. That party may even be a resurgent ANC. In fact, I sincerely hope it is.
Any decrease of power must be seen as temporary in order to ensure that future transitions of power are regular and peaceful. It’s important for a political party that loses power to regain it. If that doesn’t happen then a party will do absolutely anything and everything to prevent its grip on power from slipping, like the socio-economic scorched earth strategy implemented by Zanu-PF in 2000.
The scenario painted above may be simplistic and naïve, but then so is politics. At least we are able to plot a course, from ineptitude and unaccountability to cooperation and efficiency. Perhaps it is impossible to defuse the powder keg of frustration by diffusing the vote. We won’t know until we try.
There is a persistent refrain from the ANC faithful that the organisation should be left to address its failings internally. But there are three main problems with this.
The first is that we have seen scant evidence of this actually happening. (In fact, we have seen a lot of evidence to the contrary.)
The second is that continuing to blindly vote for any party in the face of massive and systemic underperformance undermines the basic premise of democracy as a feedback mechanism between the broader population and their rulers. (Ultimately, it does the parties themselves a massive disservice. Individuals and organisations must learn from their mistakes. Learning from one’s mistakes makes one better at recognising them and preventing them from recurring. Like puppies that need to be house trained, politicians aren’t magically going to grow a conscience. We need to rub their noses in it.)
Third, power will corrupt any organisation that is allowed to hog the trough for long enough. No matter how good your people, no matter how noble your intentions – given enough time you will become complacent and your core will begin to rot. (Of course, this isn’t a phenomenon unique to politics. In his book The Origin of Wealth, Eric Beinhocker points out that out of the companies that comprised the S&P 500 in 1800, only 17 are still there today. That’s because established organisations find it virtually impossible to keep up with the demands of a rapidly changing environment. They become victims of their own success – as they grow bigger, they need more rigid hierarchies and complex bureaucracies to function, which limits their ability to react.)
You could dismiss my mantra of “it doesn’t matter who is in power” by suggesting that the EFF’s half-baked, radical policies would sacrifice long-term economic growth for short-term enrichment. But in a coalition government, no single party’s ideology will determine the running of the country. They will be forced to find a middle path – engage in a sort of crude but welcome political dialectic.
This might sound incredibly far-fetched, but a coalition government might actually force politicians to do some real work for a change.
Not voting or spoiling one’s ballot is an understandable and theoretically justifiable course of action. But it is also an extremely sophisticated political statement. Our democracy is still too immature and blunt for such a nuanced approach. It would be like taking a scalpel to an engine block.
Granted, the cooperation that I envisage in a coalition government is itself more of a bleeding heart than a spark plug, as it were, but it is far in the future while the election is almost upon us.
Government regularly interferes in the private sector as champions of diversity. Come election time, however, our leaders want us to believe the exact opposite. They need to understand that democracy needs a heterogenous electorate in order to function optimally, in the same way that a market needs competition in order to improve its products and services. A coalition government is a system of checks and balances in the very heart of the legislature.
The good news is that you don’t need to consider your vote to be a permanent, heartfelt endorsement of a party or the system. Because at this stage in our democracy it doesn’t really matter who is in power. All that matters is the regular and peaceful transition of power.
And that can’t happen if you won’t vote. DM
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