There are at least two massive fictions that loom over next month’s general election. One originates from the governing African National Congress, the other from the Official Opposition, the Democratic Alliance.
Both are hoaxes are calculated to prop up the status quo. From the ANC comes the line that South Africa would best served if the ANC were the unassailable governing party. From the DA, that SA scores if it is the unrivalled opposition party. Both lies carry about them a faint whiff of fear.
The bigger myth of the two is that the best way for voters to indicate their displeasure at the ANC’s quarter century of incompetence and the past decade of brazen criminality is to vote for it. The smaller myth is that voters opposed to the government should not “waste” their vote on a smaller party but should rather unite behind the DA, since it alone has the resources to stand up to the ANC.
Let’s start with the latter myth. Ironically, this was the a canard that was hung around the neck of the DA’s predecessor, the Progressive Party, in the 1960s and 1970s.
For 13 years the United Party, the official opposition of the time, managed to contain the Progs to one MP, Helen Suzman, by convincing white voters that it would be a “waste” to split the opposition by supporting a small group that lacked the resources to stand up to the governing National Party. Far better, went the siren song, to support the UP, even though it was moribund and ineffectual.
Admittedly, in a constituency-based electoral system there is some validity to this argument. Splitting the opposition vote did, on occasion, allow a Nat to win a seat that with Prog support would have gone to the UP. But as Suzman demonstrated so emphatically — especially after 1974 when she was joined in Parliament by a handful of high-calibre colleagues — it’s often not about the size of the proverbial dog in the fight but rather the size of the fight in the dog.
In any case, in our present, proportional vote, system, here is no such thing as a "wasted" vote. It was chosen specifically so that smaller groups could still influence the political discourse. Every vote cast, whether in Cape Town or Koppies, makes a difference in that it adds to a party’s total vote, which directly determines its number of public representatives.
The DA actually benefits considerably from this mechanism that it is now trashing. If SA had the constituency-based system that existed before 1994, the DA would hold, at most, a couple of dozen seats in Parliament.
The proportional vote also has benefits when the political arena is a quagmire churned up by two contesting Goliaths. It allows a sprinkling of Davids to slip in and tilt the balance with skilfully wielded sling-shots.
Finally, the small parties exert policy pressure on the big parties. Not many people supporting the Economic Freedom Front (EFF) or the Capitalist Party (ZACP) seriously think either will form a government after the election. Their electoral value is as outliers of future trends, as influencers of the course to be taken by the big players.
The EFF vote, for example, is essentially a protest vote against the ANC and has been stunningly effective at pushing the government to the left on issues like nationalisation and land expropriation without compensation. These are policies that were an anathema to the ANC under Thabo Mbeki.
In similar fashion, a credible performance by the Capitalist Party (ZACP) at the cost of the DA, would be interpreted by the DA leadership as a protest vote by its traditional supporter base against the erosion of classic liberal values. If the ZACP made significant inroads into the DA vote, it would nudge the DA right in the same way that the EFF nudges the ANC to the left.
Which brings us to the biggest fable, tirelessly advanced by columnist Peter Bruce — albeit with more passion than coherence — but which nevertheless has been accorded front-cover prominence by the Financial Mail.
Bruce has an irrepressible penchant for the Quixotic. When he was editor of the Financial Mail, he ran a similarly stirring call to arms on the occasion of the second democratic election in 1999.
Bruce’s front-cover cri de cœur on that occasion was Put this Bantu where he belongs — in Parliament, advocating advocating that business rally in support of the United Democratic Movement’s Bantu Holomisa. It seemed to work, too.
The UDM got more than half a million votes in 1999 but it has slid steadily downhill, as Bruce’s predictions of great things by its leader were proven wrong. In the last election, 2014, the UDM drew only 185,000 votes.
This time around, Bruce argues that a vote for the ANC on May 8 will be understood by that party, evenly-divided as it is between supporters of former president Jacob Zuma and his successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, as an endorsement of the latter. In other words, a bad ANC performance at the polls will sink Cyril, while a good one will immunise him him against internal machinations.
Presumably, by this logic, Zuma supporters shouldn’t vote ANC, since their best chance of regaining party control apparently will be if the party takes an electoral thrashing. In reality, the opposite may be more likely — the larger the turnout for the ANC, the more it will help the Zuma-faction, since the majority of MPs on the lower reaches of the ANC’s electoral list appear to lean towards the ousted president.
Such convoluted calculations are pointless. The simple fact is that Ramaphosa’s fate does not lie in the hands of ordinary voters. It lies in the hands of ANC members. And it is an ANC membership that has shown itself perfectly capable of dumping a president, whatever his popularity with the electorate.
Mbeki added more than three percentage points to the ANC vote in the 2004 election, taking it to 70%, its highest level ever. Yet Mbeki was ignominiously discarded by the ANC membership a few years later.
Voters would best ignore the myth-makers in ANC and DA ranks. In this coming general election, the first truth is that the best way to dissuade a political party from failed policies is not to vote for it in the hope that it will miraculously be transformed by the encouragement. It is rather to punish it with a vote for another party.
The second truth is that under our proportional vote system, your vote counts. It all adds up. Use it wisely.
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Correction: This article initially claimed that Financial Mail editor Peter Bruce endorsed Bantu Holomisa and the UDM in the 1994 elections. It was, of course, in 1999. We regret the error.