An election to celebrate?
- Gilad Isaacs
- 14 May 2014 (South Africa)
The election was free and fair
A handful of apparent irregularities in the storage, counting and disposal of ballot papers before, during and after election day has been reported in the press (see for example: here, here, here and here). We should not countenance electoral misconduct, and thorough investigation (and sanction if necessary) should follow any reported irregularity, but we must also stress despite the angry Facebook “shares” and rash tweets, that these are the rare exception, not the norm.
It has been acknowledged by all parties (except the PAC, and the EFF in Gauteng)) and by independent monitors that this election was overwhelmingly free, fair and well administered; (the DA has confirmed that its analysis of Gauteng voting matches the official results).
The distrust of organs of the state is, in part, a reaction to the very real problem of corruption. The growing sense that independent state agencies are unfairly favouring the ANC and moves by the ANC to subvert other state structures, together with local and high profile cases of corruption, leave many feeling suspicious. These indiscretions range from the seemingly biased decision by the SABC to pull election adverts of the Democratic Alliance, to
the undermining of the Public Protector and parliamentary subcommittees.
However, it would be a grave mistake to unfairly transfer this suspicion onto the electoral machinery as a whole. Not only must we defend public institutions that are under attack, or protest when they are misused, but we must also esteem and support those institutions that are carrying out their mandate impartially and in the public interest; the Independent Electoral Commission’s track record suggest it is one such body.
The ANC did win an overwhelming mandate
Naysayers argue that there has been declining voter participation over the last twenty years and so the ANC doesn’t have a “real” mandate from the South African public. Statistically this decline is partially true, “voter participation” measures not only how many registered voters vote (which is “voter turnout”) but what percentage of the eligible adult population voted (remember, not everyone registers). Voter participation has declined from 86% (1994) to 64% (1999) to 57% (2004, 2009 and 2014).
There are two problems with extrapolating significance from this data. First, South African voter participation compares favourably with international trends: in their most recent elections the United Kingdom saw 61% participation, Botswana 62%, Canada 54%, Chile 54%, France 46%, Germany 66%, Korea 57% and the United States 54% (for South African and international statistics see here.
In the historic 2008 U.S. election that brought Barack Obama to power the turnout was the same as in the 2014 South African election. Obama won with 52.7% of the popular vote (i.e. only 30% of the voting-age population of the U.S. elected Obama) and this was considered a “commanding” victory. I doubt the same naysayers poo-pooed the Obama victory.
Second, everyone seems to be in a rush to claim that the stay-away voters illustrate the point they (the commentators) are trying to make. The problem with people who stay away is that we don’t know what they think. Do stay-away voters reject the ANC? That is an unsubstantiated leap. Why not claim that the stay-away voters rejected the opposition? Or that they tacitly support the status quo but can’t be bothered to vote?
Some evidence (for example from Canada) seems to suggest that non-voting reflects a rejection of all political parties on offer. On the other hand, research in the 2012 U.S. election showed that non-voters (when questioned) were not apolitical and supported Obama by a wide margin. For all we know the South African non-voters might view the ANC favourably. We just don’t know.
We do need to be concerned about non-participation; it may indicate some form of alienation from the political process. The fact that non-participation is common to all liberal democracies might indicate a systemic failing of this form of political representation. It should push us to consider new ways to organise our political system. But it does not, by itself, represent a rejection of the ANC.
On the other hand, the fact that the ANC lost ground in the election is noteworthy; the significance of this, and whether or not 2014 represents a turning point, will likely only be apparent in forthcoming elections. No doubt this represents disenchantment with the ruling party.
However, the current opposition seems to have been unable to fully capitalise on frustration felt towards the ANC. Most likely, as Steven Friedman argues, any real challenge to the ANC’s majority will come from within the ANC’s traditional base, most likely from the Left labour movement. But for now, for the majority of the voting population, marking an X next to the ANC still makes sense.
Voting for the ANC makes sense
Arguably most objectionable are those comments that demean people’s decision to vote for the ANC.
Some imply that South African voters are thoughtless “sheep” who vote based on “sentimental attachment”, race or as a matter of “faith”. Others argue that voting for the ANC means endorsing the worst actions of the current ANC leadership.
This is condescending and insulting to the intelligence of the electorate (and in some cases is downright racist, as if poor black people aren't able to work out what is in their best interest).
It is perfectly reasonable for history to play its part. The attachment of the black majority to the party that was instrumental in the struggle for liberation is completely rational.
Beyond this, the ANC has brought material change to the lives of ordinary South Africans (for instance an estimated 3.3 million housing units have been built). These improvements are insufficient, and more could have been done and must still be done, but they are real.
Third, many ordinary South Africans have correctly perceived that the main opposition party is not a working class party, but a party whose policies support the already advantaged (see a previous article on this here.
Finally, a vote for a party is not an endorsement of anything and everything that party does. For instance, there are plenty of ANC voters who would take issue with the Nkandla debacle.
The bottom line is that the overwhelming majority of active voters, given the present rage of choices, have decided that the ANC best (not perfectly) represents their interests, and that other parties do not. We must respect, even if we contest, this decision.
In a country with a five-hundred-year history of colonialism, oppression and Apartheid, the fifth (largely) peaceful, free and fair national election in democratic South Africa is something to celebrate.
Yes, there are some worrying signs in our body politic, and yes we must ensure that any electoral irregularities are not repeated. But we get nowhere with snide comments implying the election was rigged, by circulating films that accuse, without evidence, an ANC mob of beating opposition party members, by claiming people vote for the ANC because of race or “blind loyalty” or by asserting that the ANC doesn’t “actually” have a mandate.
Our democracy needs strengthening, not least by radically improving the lives of millions of South Africans. But let us proceed on the basis of respect: respect for our institutions, respect for the electoral outcome and the mandate that this confers upon all parties, and respect for the intelligence and decisions of our fellow citizens who have exercised their long-denied democratic right. DM
Gilad Isaacs is an independent economist and political commentator.
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