Is it rational to vote for one of the big three?

The three biggest parties are the ANC, the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters. Could you vote for any of them? (John McCann)

The three biggest parties are the ANC, the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters. Could you vote for any of them? (John McCann)

If we held national elections tomorrow, I would be confused as hell about who to vote for. It doesn’t help that this voter’s dilemma is one I have experienced before. The three biggest parties are the ANC, the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).
Could you vote for any of them?

The ANC cannot be rewarded for years of corruption, unethical and incompetent non-leadership, allowing the capture of the state and an inconsistent record, so far, under the presidency of Cyril Ramaphosa in demonstrating a genuine commitment to “a new dawn”.

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The DA is, as fellow political analyst Somadoda Fikeni aptly put it, busy mutilating itself in a corner, unprovoked. Worse than that is whether this party is sincerely and demonstrably committed to a just and egalitarian South Africa. If it were, it would not be scared of facing our racist and classist legacies. Its record is, at best, patchy.

Then there is the most unpredictable of the three parties, the EFF. Depending on what its leaders have for breakfast, they can either be brilliantly clinical in identifying the crux of our national crises (as their accountability role in Parliament and elsewhere shows) or they can be grossly intolerant and dangerously bigoted (such as their peddling of anti-Indian racism and threatening to sue a commentator, Prince Mashele, for his stinging political analysis of the party).

Now imagine you are a citizen who isn’t married to any of these parties. I certainly am not. My vote is up for grabs. I have, in different elections, voted for at least three
different political parties. I am a voter under the age of 40 who isn’t nostalgic about the historical roots of our main parties and I can afford to float between the parties as my own values, needs and frameworks shift.

Right now, I want a government that is filled with political leaders who are demonstrably ethical, technically fit for purpose and (my deeply personal preference) ideologically committed to a liberal egalitarian state. The latter is a state that preserves the freedoms of individuals and minorities and guards against the tyranny of the majority while taking seriously the structural injustices of the past that must be eliminated by progressive and explicit race- and class-based redistributive policies. I have previously articulated how one can, without fear of conceptual confusion, be both black and liberal.

The point is I cannot see the case for voting for the ANC, the DA or the EFF. There are individual ANC leaders in the state whom I trust. But the ANC, as a political party and a governing party, remains the main reason we are in a recession and one of the most unequal societies in the world, with deep levels of poverty and unemployment.

The 2019 election must be a referendum, in part, on the ANC’s record in government. Unless you are a sycophantic ANC supporter, how can you rationally justify voting for the party, given the government’s own statistics about everything ranging from low economic growth, soaring cost of living, excessive violent crime and chronically high levels of corruption within the state?

It used to be said by many that the support of those who do vote for the ANC is rational if one takes account of the material changes experienced by the poorest of the poor since 1994.

If you never had a clinic in your area, then you might appreciate a poorly run clinic and reward the ANC for doing something rather than ignoring you like the evil apartheid regime did.

It has been argued that the yardstick for good service delivery of middle-class voters is the wrong framework for making sense of the voting logic of the poorest of the poor. I do wonder, however, whether this hypothesis will hold true in 2019. For one thing, it is an argument (and I confess to having supported a version of it previously) that sounds, when stripped of an attempt at sophistication, rather condescending.

We cannot impute to the poor and the working poor an anthropology of low expectations. We must accept that we have a poor grasp of the psychology of voters, deferring very often to speculative analysis of differing degrees of cogency.

Far more important is that, even if previously the ANC’s record didn’t look too bad from the vantage point of people who never had any services under apartheid, the 2019 elections will be held 25 years after democracy’s dawn. Just as I can choose to change the basis on which I vote, so too can the proverbial traditional ANC voter.

In, say, 2009, it may have been most rational for a poor black person to vote ANC without thinking twice, but in 2019 the same voter may tell the ANC what they think of a clinic that does not always have the medicine they need for a chronic illness,
a social security system that does not guarantee that their grants may be delivered on time and an economy that continues to exclude them while the fat cats get fatter and monopolies in the private sector remain intact.

It is not clear to me that the current ANC-led state can fairly and accurately be described as pro-poor and pro-black. It is therefore difficult to see what the case is for voting for the ANC, whether you live in the township or in the suburbs.

But the dilemma extends to the DA and the EFF.

The DA in Cape Town has shown it is not committed to breaking the back of apartheid spatial planning’s legacy. Where are the integrated communities? Where are the social housing projects already successfully completed? On issues such as racism and transformation, the party is, at best, silent and, at worst, shockingly tone-deaf about the experiences of the black majority and the connections between our colonial past and the present.

This won’t bother everyone. There is a reason most white South Africans vote for the DA. They do so because they can afford, psychologically, not to prioritise the issue of racial justice in their personal political preferences.

For most black people, voting for the DA is, at best, a grudge vote to stop the ANC from remaining unresponsive in government.  I have met only a handful of black DA voters or supporters who express their membership of or support for the DA in terms of liberalism. There is no straightforward argument for voting for the DA.

The EFF has messed around confused voters. I have both white and black friends who have been excited about the option of voting for the EFF. Many black voters are animated by the EFF’s energetic articulation of how miserable black life still is despite a mostly black-led government overseeing the state.

But the leaders of the EFF are so wildly inconsistent in their actions that voting for the EFF is a bit like taking out a high-risk, high-returns investment policy. You could win massively if they turn out to be genuinely committed to justice and equality when they have their hands on the levers of the state.

Or you might find that these guys end up being more violent, patriarchal, antidemocratic, intolerant and racist than anything we have yet experienced. You need to have an unusually high and insatiable appetite for risk to vote EFF, especially the way it has been behaving after Jacob of Nkandla exited the political stage and they no longer had an easy focal point for their political messages.

What does all this mean?

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If you restrict yourself to the ANC, the DA and the EFF as your voting options for 2019, you will have sleepless nights until voting day. One of my radio listeners challenged me recently to think about political parties other than these three.

It may be necessary to consider more carefully whether to ignore parties other than these three. It is a pity so many smaller parties do not articulate clearly why they should be taken seriously, but, as voters and the media, we should also do more to have discussions with those parties crowded out from public discourse because of our own obsession with the big two or the big three.

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