Opinionista Vashthi Nepaul & Saul Musker 28 May 2014

Defending the poor voter

You get what you vote for. This is the cry that echoes from ivory towers across the country, as the commentariat struggle to process the results of our recent national election. Since the last ballots were counted, a noxious and derisive sentiment has been doing the rounds on social media and around the braais and water coolers of our great nation. Like most such sentiments, it is prominently shared in meme form.

“You don’t have running water.

You live in a shack.

You ride in a taxi.

I buy expensive cars.

I buy expensive houses.

I only drink Johnnie Walker.

You still like me.

Thank you for being a fucking idiot.”

So reads a blurry Facebook graphic with a jubilant Julius Malema inset against the text. (Variations on this theme reference e-tolls, high crime rates, Nkandla and the omnipresent epithet ‘you must be a special kind of stupid.’ There’s even a comically befuddled Bill Cosby cast into a meme.) The banner meme featuring Julius actually dates back to his leadership of the ANCYL but is enjoying a second wind thanks to that pernicious relic Steve Hofmeyr, who revived it on 10 May. His signed post includes a ten-point rant that has attracted thousands of likes and comments. We’ll save you the trip: he brings up the Nazis in Point Two.

What all this claims to ‘expose’ is the gullible stupidity of the poor voter – unprincipled, backwards and idiotic. Bookending this characterisation is the poor voter’s irrationality, voting for things that harm him, and the poor voter as a self-interested short-termist, voting greedily for some or other payoff. They, the poor, are not evolved or educated enough to know what’s good for them. Quite like a mouse that keeps pressing the button for cheese, even though it gets shocked every time. Trawling the underbelly of the South African internet, one could well be reading a colonist’s diary from the 19th century – a caricature of tribal savages just asking for some civilisation.

The sad thing is that this sentiment is not simply relegated to the fringes of our society – it pervades the very heart of middle- and upper-class, mostly white, discourse. It assumes that those who had the vote before know just what to do with it now and are therefore more deserving of the democratic right. These are the same people you’ll overhear saying only taxpayers should have a vote as though that doesn’t translate into a system of Apartheid. The sentiment is born of frustration and impatience – It’s been twenty years is a prime complaint. When will they stop voting them in? More than anything else, though, it is born of a deeply-entrenched superiority complex, contrasted with the inferiority of the uneducated masses, the lumpen proletariat, who represent for the residents of South Africa’s gated enclaves an amorphous shadow of blackness and primitivism.

In the face of such an attack, a coherent defence must be made of the poor voter. The first allegation against him is that he ought to have realised by now, twenty years into the show, that things are not going quite as per the plan.

Is this really a sign of irrationality, though? Twenty years is, in the grand scheme of things, not a particularly long time. Of course, twenty years without any change, or with a change for the worse, would be hard to justify. Twenty years with incremental change, though, sounds fairly reasonable. A rational decision-maker would conduct a weigh-up of the harms and benefits he has accrued from the system, and make a considered prediction of what harms and benefits he might expect should the status quo continue. In the case of many poor black SA voters, this is easy: many of the changes they have experienced, like repealed Apartheid laws, fairer and more representative public bodies and enshrined rights and freedoms, were immediate and had a big payoff.

What many in the wealthier classes seem to overlook is the fact that their benchmarks are entirely incomparable. If your starting point is a makeshift shack with zero access to basic services and a repressive military presence in your neighbourhood, your life right now, with access to some services like running water and free basic education, will represent a significant improvement. Happiness is entirely relative, and what one rational resident of Parkview perceives as failure, a rational resident of Katlehong might perceive as radical success.

The reason why it is easy to dismiss this incremental change is because the wealthier classes consume bad news in a very disconnected manner. Service delivery protests are an ideal example of this. Unless we all missed a revolution, service delivery protests are exception reporting. For every one service delivery protest, there are millions of South Africans who benefitted from government-provided services. Even if you, as a poor voter, have not yet benefitted from expanded public services or low-cost housing, you are bound to know somebody who has. You might rationally calculate that another ANC government will continue to extend such services in the future, until such time as you benefit directly. If an individual were to weigh all this up and reckon on hedging their bets with the ANC government for a while longer, it would not seem irrational to us. The same logic goes for corruption, and the apparently lukewarm electoral punishment of Zuma’s ANC for the Nkandla saga. Few people are blind to the problem; but many stand to gain from the government on average far more than they stand to lose from corruption. The weigh-up favours continuity.

A second derisive allegation made of the poor voter is that he votes against the DA only because it is perceived to be a ‘white party’, and that such a decision is clearly irrational because it ignores the merit of the candidates on offer. Again, this is a false and narrow logic. Democracy is not technocracy; merit is a primordial concern, of course, but it is not the only concern. When only five of the DA’s top twenty candidates in Gauteng are black African, a black African voter might reasonably be concerned that the party does not adequately represent his interests in the province. While it may be less tangible than the provision of water or social welfare, for example, the feeling or being represented is an important part of a voter’s democratic life. Moreover, the dearth of black candidates might reasonably provoke fears that the party’s candidates cannot fully or properly empathise with or relate to the black voter’s circumstances and concerns. Given that representativity is an integral part of any government, how can this be an irrational decision?

This is not, of course, to say that we would agree with any such decisions. The relative success of a hypothetical DA administration, for example, or the ‘correctness’ of a vote for the ANC, is irrelevant here. All that matters is that the thought processes above are rational processes. They are the same processes that any other rational voter would contemplate. They merely arrive at a different conclusion, based on the poor voter’s specific and unique circumstances.

An important caveat should be made at this point. The ‘poor voter’ does not truly exist – there is no uniform mould of thinking or of circumstance that we can ascribe to him. Much like voters of any economic class, there exists a vast range of variables which influence a democratic decision, all of which intersect and interact to form the voter’s opinion.

So yes, poor voters are not immune to identity politics. No voter is. Wealthy supporters of the DA do not necessarily base their support on a detailed knowledge of the economic and other policies of that party; many of them vote DA, either consciously or subconsciously, because they identify with the ‘whiteness’ of the party, or because they identify with the party as an “anti-ANC” rather than a policy alternative of its own. These are not purely rational considerations; a poor voter may well vote ANC out of nostalgia or loyalty, but that is no different from any other South African. The crux of the issue is just this: there is no real, ascribable difference between a poor, uneducated voter and a rich, educated one. They both make rational considerations and weigh-ups, as described above. They both temper their rational considerations with personal value judgements influenced by their social condition, their family history, the conversations their parents had over mealtimes, their race, their gender, their religion, their locality. It is for this reason that the condescending dismissal of poor voters by the wealthier classes is so patently absurd: not only is it utterly baseless, but it is deeply hypocritical too.

The hypocrisy of the poor voter’s critics is reflected best in the discourse surrounding the Western Cape. When the ANC government breaks 60% of the vote nationally, such a result is dismissed as a consequence of irrational voting. When the DA achieves a similarly resounding success in the Western Cape, however, no such allegations are made. Are those poor voters somehow ‘rational’, just because they voted for the DA? What about all of the DA’s voters in the Cape Flats, whose lives remain, on the whole, rather miserable by middle-class standards? According to Steve Hofmeyr’s logic, they are the enlightened few, able to make excellent decisions in the long-term, knowing that the DA will one day deliver. The truth is, of course, that the wealthy DA votership will only accept those who make the same decisions as they do to be rational voters. In a democracy where there is no such thing as ‘the right decision’, where the future can only be speculated and aspersions must necessarily be cast, this is an absurd and telling claim.

The patronising dismissal of poor voters by the wealthier classes formed the basis of the movement for a qualified franchise, subscribed to for much of its existence by the PFP, predecessor of the current DA. It is steeped in ignorant misconceptions and an arrogant sense of superiority. It is baseless and condescending. But more than anything else, it is very dangerous. If political leaders in the opposition, and their supporters in general, do not acknowledge the rational thought processes that every voter goes through – and the irrational influences that they are themselves prone to – they will forever find themselves “othering” a powerful and important group of South African voters rather than understanding them. Attitudes need to change, for everyone’s sake. It’s not about what is a ‘good vote’ or a ‘bad vote’ – we will always disagree on such matters. But the fact is that you don’t need a university degree to vote rationally. And many who do have one, don’t. DM


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