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Electoral knowledge: Is Steven Friedman the only person in SA who gets the PR system?

You know what the problem with politics is? Too few of us know anything about politics. Or statistics. Or economics. Or anything that counts, really.

“Speak for yourself,” I hear readers mutter. I do speak for myself. One of the worst moments of my professional career was when Wikipedia took its site offline for a day in 2012 to protest against antipiracy legislation. That restricted me to writing about stuff I actually knew about — Prince Harry’s dating history, for example.

The recent local government elections have really helped to expose the blind spots in our collective political knowledge. The two comments I overheard most frequently while queuing to vote in Cape Town were: “Why are those people allowed to push to the front of the queue?” and then “Why are people getting two ballot sheets?”

The first question was easily answered, namely that those voters had paid extra for priority boarding.

The second appeared to attract more confusion. “One sheet is for your municipality, and the other is for your … province?” the person behind me hazarded doubtfully. Nailed it.

Although it wasn’t just us ordinary voters who were flailing about in a quagmire of befuddlement. Political parties, analysts, media: all over the show, mistakes were flying thick and fast. Sometimes it was hard to know whether the errors were genuine or not.

Everyone had a good snigger at a graph produced by the SABC that depicted a 2% gap in vote share by the ANC over the Democratic Alliance as a skyscraper bar (ANC) towering over a tiny little nub (DA). Perhaps this was not the result of graph illiteracy on the part of the SABC’s data team. Maybe the public broadcaster’s chief operating officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, just drew it himself with a crayon to bring a spot of sunshine journalism to a tense day.

The DA also went around warning the electorate before polling day that to vote for a smaller opposition party would split the opposition vote and lead directly to the ANC ruling till the end of days. As political analyst Steven Friedman — one of the people who actually knows a thing or two about politics — pointed out, this was bollocks. A split vote, in terms of proportional representation, just means that seats are allocated on the basis of vote share, with no vote wasted. I think.

Did the DA genuinely get confused about the electoral system? It seems unlikely, because I’ve always pictured their end-of-year parties revolving around politics spot quizzes at Helen Zille’s house, but I’ve come to the conclusion that anything’s possible.

After all, we had the ANC proudly inform the nation towards the end of the game that they had almost doubled their votes since 2011, from 8.1-million to 14-million. It turned out the ANC’s national executive committee was labouring under the same confusion as the oke standing behind me in the voting queue, about the function of two ballots. It’s literally their million-rand job to understand this stuff and they don’t appear to, so how should the rest of us be expected to keep up?

Another headscratcher was brought to us courtesy of the state broadcaster, who informed us — again in visual form — that the ANC was leading the Gauteng vote count with 41.71% to the DA’s 43.93%. Laugh? I thought my panties would never dry. Until some know-it-alls pointed out that a party can indeed be in the lead with a lower vote percentage, if they hold more seats at the time. It’s a bit like how you can be mega-rich in assets but not have enough cash in your current account to buy milk at Shoprite, or something.

The fracas over whether DA leader Mmusi Maimane had told a rally that he had “voted for Mandela” was also pretty telling. Amid all the smart asses scrambling to show that they were good enough at maths to work out that Maimane wasn’t old enough to vote in 1994, few people pointed out that it would be even more alarming if Maimane actually thought that our electoral system was set up for us to vote directly for individuals to be president.

Our electoral ignorance isn’t the fault of the Independent Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC). They have enough on their hands, what with trying to prevent the massive security threat posed by young women armed with deadly pieces of paper from ever recurring on their doorstep.

Still, if I was a high-ranking IEC official, I might spend some sleepless nights contemplating the following question: “If you stopped random South Africans on the street and asked them to explain the proportional representation system, how many would be able to answer?” About three, I reckon, and they would all be Steven Friedman in disguise.

This issue is developing a galloping urgency as our politics becomes more complex. South Africans can no longer safely just pick the face on the ballot that matches their skin tone, and it might be time to introduce some compulsory political education lessons. I’ll be first to enrol. 

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