In Depth

IN DEPTH — SA General Election: The voter’s dilemmas

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In a few days, South Africans shall go through another general election. Anthony Egan SJ knows that he is obliged to vote but is greatly conflicted about the process and is feeling the pressure. He offers us ways of reflecting on our duty as voters and where we mark ‘X’ when casting our ballot on 8 May.

I get the impression that the majority of South Africans just want the general election over and done with as quickly and painlessly as possible – a bit like a dental check-up? (Please note: I apologise to the many compassionate, highly skilled and honourable dentists out there who may feel offended by my using this as an analogy for elections).

What has happened to the enthusiasm we all once had, twenty-five years, ago for elections? Why do so many feel a mixture of cynicism and despair[1] where once it was so much part of a dream of liberation and nationhood?

I don’t think that five elections down the line it has all become passé. Or even that deep down we no longer believe in democracy. However flawed democracy is as a system, as the philosopher Plato noted so eloquently,[2] the real-life tendency of enlightened autocracy (that Plato preferred) to decline into tyranny still makes it our least bad option. 

More likely, I suspect it is that many feel that the ‘dream’ (of freedom, equality, belonging, and an escape from structural poverty) has been deferred.[3] Perhaps, it has even been indefinitely replaced by an increasingly uneasy alliance of old and new elites, with advancement only happening for the rich, the financially independent or politically connected. 

The more philosophical among us might even suggest that the once noble motives for seeking and holding public office — summed up beautifully by that term from Catholic social ethics, ‘the common good’[4] — have been replaced by the cynical pursuit of self-interest. A self-interest that manifests itself most blatantly, but not exclusively, in rampant corruption. This is particularly galling to others (the employed and tax-payers) whose discontent is in seeing tax money wasted through a poisonous cocktail of corruption and mismanagement. Even those who are willing in principle to pay high taxes that would be properly used – in education, public health, welfare and infrastructural renewal – are disillusioned.  

In addition, to many of the poor it seems clear that their needs and interests are not being met, no matter how fiercely (and almost daily) they protest. The latter, though they express a certain politics of spectacle, is ultimately futile. There is no revolution around the corner. All populist rhetoric aside, if push comes to shove, the state — like states everywhere — still has the monopoly of force to crush resistance like a bug. 

If this analysis is correct — and based on my observations I think it is broadly so — the voter going to the polls next week, no matter such human variables as race or class or gender, is generally disillusioned and at a loss to decide for whom to vote. The choice is basically between an incumbent party riddled with corruption that has not really delivered on the 1994 dream, an official opposition that is seen as the party of big business and still internally fraught over race (even as it desperately tries to win over black voters), and a left party whose policies if implemented will cause capital flight and scare away foreign investments. 

There are other parties of course — dozens of them — but they are variously too small, too regional, too ideologically weird or simply personality-driven to offer any significant alternative. Add to that that they are under-resourced and with uneven levels of political sophistication, and one can see them (to use an agricultural metaphor) as little more than flies pestering the big bulls in the field.

The voter is faced with dilemmas.

The first voter dilemma is whether to vote at all.

I have elsewhere commented[5]that not registering to vote is to voluntarily exclude oneself from decision-making — and that it is stupid. 

It is the same with being registered and not voting. No matter how high-minded and principled it may seem (echoing Shakespeare) to declare “A pox on both your houses!” by abstaining, is merely expressing an implicit acceptance of the status quo after the election. So don’t complain if a party you hate gains seats and influence at the cost of one you hate less (or indeed may even like a little).

The same goes for spoiling your ballot. A spoilt ballot in our system is utterly worthless — better to vote for a small party (my sarcastic comments above notwithstanding) in the hopes that, in the event of a hung parliamentary outcome, they might influence the direction of policy. 

The second dilemma is how to vote.

I am not going to tell you how to vote, not least because I am still unsure how I am going to vote. But be assured, I am going to vote. 

Rather let me try to analyse briefly some of the criteria most often used by voters, according to political science literature.

First, sentimental voting. This is when you vote for a party that you’ve always voted for because, well…you’ve always voted for it. 

Reasons for this are varied: you come out of a family associated with a party; you’re a member of the party; you feel some kind of emotional debt to the party. 

Now there is much that is commendable about loyalty, but even loyalty has a limit (unless of course you are a candidate for election). Just as people change — morphing sometimes from decent, honourable and charming to dirty, rotten scoundrels — so do institutions like political parties. When such institutions change for the worse, even the most loyal person might well consider whether to stay within to reform it — or to get out for the sake of one’s own integrity and peace of mind.

Second, ideological voting. In some ways close to sentimental voting, this is when one votes for a party because it is closest to one’s political, social and economic worldview. Naturally, this assumes that one is familiar with a party’s current ideology because party ideologies change subtly or overtly (look at China’s Communist Party[6] —I’ll say no more). In addition, one might also ask whether a party’s ideology actually translates into practice and whether this practice will promote the good one seeks. 

Third, self-interested voting. I am not overly cynical (though, full disclosure, I am an avid reader of Niccolò Machiavelli[7] and Thomas Hobbes,[8] among other political philosophers, which may make me a tad politically dyspeptic), but I firmly believe that many — most — vote with varying degrees of self-interest in mind. There is no moral judgment in this observation, let me add. Quite often such voting involves ‘rational choice’ (to use a term from political science).[9]

But herein lies ‘the rub’ (if I may resort once again to Shakespeare). How well do I know what is good for me? Many are familiar with the idea of a hierarchy of needs,[10] from the immediate, to the more intellectual and spiritual. While the theorists insist that basic needs must be met first, there is in public life conflict between meeting basic needs and higher, long term needs that can often lead to long term disaster.

While it is true that “Give people fish and feed them for a day”[11] meets immediate basic needs, it is important to note that “Teach people how to fish and feed them for their lives”. But even here we need to beware that in doing either (or both) we consider the ecological effects of over-fishing on one hand and creating dependency on the ‘kindness of strangers’ on the other. Sound fishing policy and a safety net (pardon the pun) is needed to both meet needs and create sustainability.

There is truth in the claim “The Best is not always the Good.” It may stick in our throats, particularly if we are at the bottom of the economic pile (and have been all our lives), but it reminds us that simple solutions do not always consider what is possible. Politics is the art of the possible, and the possible in our age includes broader political and economic trends regionally and globally. We need to factor these in too. No one has the good fortune to live in isolation, however much we’d like to. We don’t have to like this. We shouldn’t like this. At very least we should aspire to create a society where the minimum basic needs of everyone are met.[12]

And, fourthly, there is what is called strategic voting. Strategic voting is the act and art of balancing self-interest, ideology and sentiment when casting one’s ballot. It involves careful thought and weighing up of options. Some electoral systems almost seem based on the assumption of strategic voting. There is a weighted preference system[13] in use in many countries, for example, where voters list their candidates in order of preference. This often means they can vote for multiple candidates from the same party, or across parties. 

Our electoral system — as well as the previous ‘first past the post’ Westminster model we had before 1994 — does not allow for this. But even here it is possible to at least split one’s vote if one wishes, between province and national assemblies. For those who feel one party is better governing the nation as a whole and another their province (e.g. a regional party or one that seems more in tune with a province’s specific needs), this act of strategic voting may make sense. 

And the third voter dilemma can be summed up as: what about the future?

The 2019 General Election is upon us. It is our duty to vote, whatever our reservations about voting and perhaps our sense that we are invited to choose between bad, worse and catastrophic. We should never forget that the act whereby every registered adult citizen can cast a ballot was the product of a long, slow and painful struggle. 

Given all that, never forget that.      

The 2019 General Election is upon us. If some feel discontented with it, or simply wonder whether to bother at all, it might be worth asking why we feel that way? Though I have noted good reasons for our discontent, I think we must also look inwardly to ourselves. 

How many of us really take the political situation seriously, ask questions of politicians, demand answers? In the end, democracy is only as good as the voters. Much as it may make us angry, sad or even feel politically impotent, we need to take up the challenge of informing ourselves more thoroughly about public matters, critically engage with questions and see how we — an active, informed electorate — can get constructively involved with democracy. 

When we the voters are apathetic and give up, or simply can’t be bothered, we get what we deserve: a mess. Do this for too long and our democracy will wither and die.

It’s probably too late for 2019. It’s not too late for 2024.


[1]https://www.thesouthafrican.com/2019-election-south-africa-latest-opinion-polls-afrobarometer/.

[2]Plato, The Republic (translated by Desmond Lee) (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1974), esp. 372-381.

[3]Anthony Tolika Sibiya, “A developmental state in South Africa is a dream deferred” Daily Maverick,7 January 2019 https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2019-01-07-a-developmental-state-in-south-africa-is-a-dream-deferred/.  

[4]David Hollenbach, The Common Good and Christian Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2002).

[5]https://spotlight.africa/2019/01/31/why-not-registering-to-vote-is-bad-for-democracy/.

[6]Cf. Richard McGregor, The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers (London: Penguin 2012); Martin Jacques, When China Rules the World; The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order (2ndedition) (London: Penguin 2012).

[7]Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1988) [1532]; NiccolòMachiavelli, Discourses on Livy (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2003) [1531]; for an excellent summary see: Quentin Skinner, Machiavelli: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2000).

[8]Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1996) [1651].

[9]Michael Allingham, Choice Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2002).

[10]Abraham H Maslow, “A theory of human motivation’, Psychological Review 50(4) 1943: 370-396; Saul McLeod, “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”, https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html.  

[11]The gender non-inclusive original form of this observation is attributed to the medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides by some sources, though this is disputed.

[12]Cf. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (revised edition) (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press/Harvard University Press 1999).

[13]Jurij Toplak, “Preferential Voting: Definition and Classification”, Lex Localis – Journal of Local Self-Government 15 (2017): 737-761; https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/theworldpost/wp/2018/03/22/ranked-choice-voting/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.3db57166fa2f.

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* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.

 

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