/ 29 May 2019

Don’t dismiss ANC’s rural voters as ignorant

On balance
On balance, the varying spatial voter patterns and perceptions of government are perhaps indicative of positive experiences of rural voters under an ANC-led government, notwithstanding what others view as unforgivable failures.(Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

Elections have come and gone. Political parties and the public are reflecting on how well or badly they fared and some are mulling over voter patterns. Amid these reflections, one cannot help but notice how rural voters in provinces such as Limpopo, the Eastern Cape and North West are berated and questioned for always giving the ANC a majority vote while they languish in a sea of underdevelopment and the inadequate delivery of basic services.

Questioning voter choice, rural or urban, is tantamount to questioning people’s intelligence to decide between multiple political alternatives and smacks of elitism. Some people have gone as far as describing the relationship between the ANC and its voters as similar to the Stockholm syndrome — a condition in which a person develops positive feelings for their captors, and is understood as a survival mechanism.

A tweet from one leader of the official opposition party, although not framed in the context of rural voter patterns, remarked: “I am amazed that SA voters still choose to vote ANC despite what they have done.”

This simply means the opposition party failed to present a better alternative to the ANC.

Clearly, the rural voter’s perception and experience of the ANC’s performance is incongruent with their detractors’ views and those of opposition parties.

Those questioning the rural voter choice are quick to highlight the poor socioeconomic and service delivery record (perhaps selectively) of the rural provinces under 25 years of ANC rule. In the rural provinces, poverty and unemployment is highest (although Limpopo has the lowest unemployment rate), the matric pass rate is lowest, and the provision of basic services and the reliability of these are below the national average.

For some people, reconciling the ANC’s rural electoral victory with flagrant maladministration defies logic and perhaps legitimises concerns about what is seemingly blind devotion to a floundering political party.

What draws the rural voter towards the ANC then?

Analysts and others attribute the party’s rural popularity to old conservative voters who identify with its historical struggle credentials. But this conjecture is disputable when considering that South Africa’s voter population has a shared geographical and historical background and urban voters are probably the biggest beneficiaries of the ANC’s developmental programmes.

On balance, the varying spatial voter patterns and perceptions of government are perhaps indicative of positive experiences of rural voters under an ANC-led government, notwithstanding what others view as unforgivable failures. As the party’s members would claim, the ANC’s record speaks for itself and is somewhat unparalleled in comparison with most countries in transition.

Almost nine million people are on social grants; four million RDP houses have been built; five million HIV-affected people are on antiretroviral medication; poor children have access to free basic education, complete with learner-teacher support materials, transportation and a meal; and every citizen is at least guaranteed access to healthcare. The quality of these services is a subject of growing concern, but clearly voters are unbothered.

Voters are portraying a strange choice or preference behaviour, one that is inconsistent with expectation of rational decision-making. There is a widely developed framework in academia which posits that every individual is rational and, after considering all the necessary information, probabilities, cost and benefits, would choose the best possible option. For instance, a prospective buyer of a home cannot willingly choose to buy a dilapidated house because they will bear the costs of their choice.

Yet voter behaviour is somewhat different. Economists have coined the term “rationally ignorant” to describe average voter behaviour. This simply means that voters, as self-interested agents, do not internalise the costs of their political choices because it is expensive to do so and it’s often difficult to know with certainty the extent to which one’s individual vote can sway the outcome of the elections.

Facing such a predicament, the rational voter response is to be ignorant because the costs and incentives of being an informed voter are prohibitive. The voter contest occurs with the realisation that changing the identity of political office bearers barely leads to better government.

A combination of this irrational voter behaviour and rent-seeking by elected officials reinforce each other so that public programmes are purposefully designed to benefit the electorate in areas that contribute more votes.

Following this logic, it can be concluded that the ANC’s popularity in rural areas has nothing to do with blind loyalty or voter intelligence, but rather with the collective nature of the cost burden associated with ill-considered political choices and the individual costs of gathering information about political parties’ performance records and their electoral intentions.

This is a simple deduction that needs to be understood by opposition parties, if they are to wage a successful campaign for political victory against the ANC — reduce the information costs.

For the time being, and given the rightful concerns about the endemic problems of majority rule in the rural provinces, both the ANC and opposition parties in particular should focus on strengthening the institutions established to support democracy.

Fortunately, the Constitution provides safeguards to regulate against incestuous relationships developing between voters and political parties, and discrimination based on political allegiance. It is crucial that both voters and opposition parties focus on the checks and balances in the system to guard against potential abuse of power, emboldened by majority vote.

James Madison, one of the influential founders of the United States’s federal system, sums it up as follows: “In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” The post-election period for South Africa is the next stage in which government should be increasingly obliged to control itself.

Eddie Rakabe is an independent researcher and economist