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The economics of the 2021 elections: When your enemy’s enemy becomes your own enmity

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By Tim Cohen
28 Nov 2021 1

Tim Cohen is editor of Business Maverick. He is a business and political journalist and commentator of more years than he likes to admit. His freelance work has included contributions to the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, but he spent most of his life working for Business Day. After a mid-life crisis that didn't include the traditional fast car, Cohen now lives in the middle of nowhere in the Karoo.

If you are even vaguely interested in economics as a theoretical exercise, you will know that outside of statistical models, there are three concepts that reverberate: opportunity cost, unintended consequences and complexity. Just for fun, how would these concepts apply to the recent local government elections?

Take unintended consequences. I spent two years of my life reporting on what was first called the Codesa Convention for a Democratic South Africa, then Codesa, and eventually just “the multiparty negotiations”.

The discussions took place outside Johannesburg’s airport in a disused convention centre called the World Trade Centre, which had the advantage of having lots of rooms where the horse trading actually took place.

I still think what came out of those negotiations is one of the most remarkable achievements in modern history. The Constitution is a model of balance, rationality and moderation. But if you had to critique it, one point to raise is that many of the constitutional stipulations were rooted in the immediate political dynamics of that particular moment.

One of the driving principles of the Constitution was inclusivity, which was understandable because many of the 27 parties present were worried that they would disappear when the election finally happened (they did). The ANC was pulling in the other direction, worried that all the inclusivity would mean it would not be able to implement its own policies.

In the end, like with everything else, there was a compromise. The largest of those was proportional representation as a voting mechanism. One thing proportional representation does is allow room for smaller parties. Why did the ANC make this concession at the time? Many reasons, but mostly, I think, because it recognised that even with proportional representation, it would still be by far the largest party. At that moment, it seemed impossible that the ANC would ever win less than a plurality of the vote.

Hello, unintended consequences. The biggest significance of the recent local government elections is that, for the first time, the ANC won less than half the vote.

This is the same party that won almost 70% of the vote at its height. The consequences of that change are enormous. It means, very obviously, that government by agreement and consensus is going to be the rule rather than the exception.

And, in the process, we are going to see some odd stuff. Hello, opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is the loss of alternatives when a particular alternative is chosen. The most visible aspect of this is the decision of the EFF to, unbidden, vote for DA candidates.

Why did the EFF do that? In a way it’s obvious. The EFF has heavyweight rejection issues; having been ousted by the ANC, its desire for revenge against its former paramour outweighs, it turns out, its revulsion for the policies of the DA.

Tactically, it seeks the destruction of the Cyril Ramaphosa faction in the ANC and the rise of the Radical Economic Transformation faction. The easiest way to achieve that is to hand a bunch of major municipalities to the DA, because it’s more important to them who loses than who wins. And, of course, it increases their power-broker status, since they can break the coalitions as easily as they made them.

Which brings us to complexity. This is going to be a hairy period. In this case, my enemy’s enemy is my friend, but only for a moment, whereupon my enemy’s enemy becomes my enmity and my friends become my friends. Or something.

I want to believe this is all a step forward, since shared power has to be more honest than dominant power. In life, complexity is a negative because it suggests confusion and difficulty. In economics, it’s a positive because complex economies work better than simple ones, and that’s because of inter-reliance, specialisation, diversity, avenues for innovation and competition.

But in these local government elections it’s easy to see the result being the opposite; a cacophony of bickering and backstabbing. We will see. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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  • Spot on! Interestingly, Zuma was president when Juju was booted out of the ANC, and Ramaphosa was on – or headed, the Disciplinary committee. The VBS saga then is a deal-breaker putting the EFF firmly in the criminal camp of RET. It’s not hard to imagine tea-time in Pollsmoor. If only! But I’m not holding my breath.