Quote of the week

[Nostalgia] is rarely the past as actually experienced, of course; it is the past as imagined, as idealized through memory and desire. In this sense … nostalgia is less about the past than about the present. It operates through what Mikhail Bakhtin called an ‘historical inversion’: the ideal that is not being lived now is projected into the past.

David Medalie
12 May 2011

Notes on the “toilet election”

Because no accurate public polling data is available in South Africa to measure the voting intensions of members of the electorate, it is impossible to make any meaningful predictions about the outcome of the local government election, which will be held next Wednesday. In the past, available public polling data had consistently underestimated support for the African National Congress (ANC) and had overstated support for the Democratic Alliance (DA), so even if polling data had been available this data would have been less reliable than similar data in the USA.

I will therefore refrain from playing the ignorant pundit by making any predictions about how well the various parties will do in the upcoming election. In any case, as a middle class white person living in Cape Town, I do not have sufficient information about what is happening in various communities to make any sensible comments on the outcome of the election. Nevertheless, I will venture a few preliminary thoughts about the manner in which the election was fought — based on the manner in which the media has reported on the campaigns and on the election debates broadcast on radio and television.

(I make no comment about the nature of the practical aspects of the campaigns and the efforts made by political parties to get their voters to the polls, something that might be crucial as a low voter turnout by traditionally ANC supporters or DA supporters might well make a huge difference to the outcome of the election in various municipalities.)

Bearing these caveats in mind, the following aspects stood out for me.

  • The DA has run by far the best election campaign of any political party in terms of formulating a simple, positive and coherent message, ensuring that everyone in the party stays on message and managing the media aspects of its campaign. Whether one supports the DA or not, one has to admire the discipline of the DA team and the manner in which it has managed to begin the long and difficult process of repackaging itself as a party for all South Africans and not just for white elite interests. I have seen more pictures of Helen Zille with scores of black supporters in blue DA T-shirts in the last two months than in the previous 10 years.
  • The ANC, on the other hand, has not run as good an election campaign as it has shown itself capable of in the past. It lacked a coherent and simple positive message and often came across as desperate and, hence, it failed to dictate the terms of the campaign as it has done in previous elections. It is unclear whether this was because of divisions within the ANC, weak leadership, or because it is faced with the challenges inherent to any party who has been in power for a long time. The fact that — for the past two years — we have been bombarded with so many stories about ANC corruption and misgovernment, which have created a narrative that was difficult to change, might also have made the task of the ANC in this election more difficult than before.
  • Judging from the media, smaller parties have almost completely disappeared from the electoral radar screens. This election was presented in the media as a two-horse race between the ANC and the DA, which probably benefited the DA (whose stature was enhanced by being treated as being in the same league as the ANC) and for obvious reasons disadvantaged the ANC.
  • More generally, I have been disheartened by mind-numbing superficiality of the way in which the political parties have generally engaged with very serious and important local government issues. It seems to me that there are several structural problems with the way municipalities are organised and run in South Africa. The tax base for many municipalities are so low that even if they were governed efficiently, they would not be able to deliver on their mandates. The “pay-as-you-go” principle for the delivery of services (which is implemented by both the ANC and the DA run municipalities) are fundamentally anti-poor and the band-aid solutions currently in place do not address the larger question, namely that the very poor can often not afford to pay for the basic services like water and electricity which municipalities are constitutionally and legally required to provide them with. Yet, we all seem to be obsessed by open toilets and by election stunts such as the ANC claim that it was laying criminal charges against the DA for the alleged DA pamphlet which quoted Trevor Manuel’s own criticism of the ANC.

But there is an important matter of electoral design that has also been highlighted by this election. This election campaign has been largely run as a national campaign and has not focused much on pressing local issues. We are often told that one reason why our national and provincial legislatures are not working as well as they should is because of the electoral system which makes those representatives accountable to their political parties and not to the electorate. If we brought back the constituency-based system, so some analysts argue, our representatives would be more responsive and accountable.

But at local government level half of the councillors are elected to represent geographical constituencies, and one would have imagined that those standing in these wards would try to demonstrate to voters in that ward how they would improve the lives of their constituents. Yet, although I stay in a fairly affluent area in Sea Point, I do not have a clue what the names of the ANC or DA representative is who is standing in the election for this ward. I have had no communication from the prospective ward councillors about how they intend to serve me and why I should vote for him or her. All I know is that my previous councillor is not standing for re-election. (Trust me, I was looking forward to see his face smiling at me from the lampposts!)

Which goes to show, even if one has a constituency-based electoral system very little would change as far as accountability is concerned. As long as elected representatives are in effect appointed by political party leaders, they will be accountable to those leaders and not to the electorate.

Because the ANC is not going to win this Sea Point ward (like most wards in South Africa, my ward is dominated by one political party), the DA leadership has in effect decided who will represent me and that leadership will also decide whether this councillor will serve another term after the next election.

Changing the electoral system will therefore probably not make provincial and national legislative representatives more accountable and effective unless the voting patterns of the electorate changed dramatically and the elections in most wards or constituencies became far more competitive. Even then, as long as party leaders in effect had the right to impose or remove candidates representing the party, the accountability might not be as strong as one would wish.

Predictions? Nah – I will leave that for the professional pundits.

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