Who to vote for: South African National Elections 2019

For those of us who don’t reflexively vote for the same political party in every election, regardless of contextual details like their performance, their choice of candidates, and of course their policy platforms, the 2019 National Elections (May 8) might well be the most confounding choice we’ve ever faced.

None of the candidates are not sub-optimal in some form or another. The ANC’s candidate list includes people who have been directly implicated in “state capture” and corruption. While it’s true that they are eligible to be members of Parliament – as Ace Magashule says, “Anybody who has not been found guilty by a court of law is on the list” – you’d hope that the bar would be set higher than “not a proven criminal”.

Computational propaganda, clickbait, and personal responsibility

The proliferation of misinformation on social media – or even just partisan or sensationalistic treatments of politics, science and human relations – could reasonably be considered a threat to democracy itself.

When you add computation propaganda to the mix, where bots are deployed to manipulate public opinion, filter-bubbles form even more readily, and you can now find a closed and self-reinforcing community to reinforce just about any view you can imagine.

Should you vote? South African Local Government Elections 2016

Earlier today, Eusebius McKaiser was asking CapeTalk and Radio702 listeners whether they thought that they had a duty to vote, and I tweeted that

John Maytham was listening in, and that resulted in an interview with me, just concluded a few minutes ago. For those who didn’t hear it (here’s a link to the podcast), and who care about what I have to say on this topic, here is a digest of my thoughts on the matter:

Democracy – the worst form of government…

… “except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”, as Churchill reminded us.

People are still talking about #Brexit, as one might expect given the severity of some potential consequences of the United Kingdom withdrawing from the EU. But some people – including one that I have great respect for, Prof. A.C. Grayling – are arguing that UK Parliamentarians should vote against any motion to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.

Article 50 would start the official clock on an EU exit, whereas what we have now is a non-binding advisory reflecting the will of the voters. As the English lawyer and respected legal commentator David Allen Green puts it:

What happens next in the event of a vote to leave is therefore a matter of politics not law. It will come down to what is politically expedient and practicable. The UK government could seek to ignore such a vote; to explain it away and characterise it in terms that it has no credibility or binding effect (low turnout may be such an excuse).

Of course, it might not be politically possible for Parliament to reject the vote, even if the majority of parliamentarians wanted to, given that doing so would be acting expressly against what the voters have asked for.

A separate question is whether the voters knew what they were doing. Another is whether the referendum was constructed appropriately, in that you might want to require a larger (perhaps 2/3) majority for a decision of this magnitude.

My concern is that you can’t like democracy only when you happen to agree with the decisions taken by an electorate. To say that voters didn’t have access to all the information they needed to make the “right” choice here is to my mind false – they had the information, but some of them perhaps didn’t access it until too late, and some of them perhaps never thought about it enough.

No amount of “buyers remorse” proves the point that the will of the people was not expressed in the #Brexit vote, whether or not you regard the people as fools or sages for making the decision they did.

So I’d disagree with Grayling here. A choice has been made, and according to the rules of democracy, Parliament would be acting without a mandate if it were to ignore the vote. Sometimes the electorate makes decisions that suit you, sometimes it doesn’t – you don’t get to change the rules when you don’t like the outcome.

If I were supreme leader, I’d want to ignore the will of the people in this case, as well as in many others. And that, in short, is why the majority vote gets to decide – because even when “they” make the wrong choice, you’re still protected from having to suffer the whims of a dictator.

On Kasrils, and spoiling your ballot

It’s perfectly reasonable to be dissatisfied with the electoral process. We might struggle to find a voter in any jurisdiction who can’t present a case for how things could be better, whether the improvement were to come from revisions to party funding legislation or the accountability of elected officials to those of us who elect them.

And, grumbling is what we do – all the more since the Internet and social media allowed for vastly increased numbers of people to join in the grumbling. But for all the grumbling, it’s perhaps worth thinking about – or revisiting – what the point of electoral systems in democracies is.

On the surface, of course the point is to show us what the will of the people is, and to allow for us to elect people to represent us in Parliament, or on city councils. (In South Africa, we don’t elect people but instead vote for parties, who choose the people – which is but another thing you could grumble about it you wish.)

But the dissatisfaction leads some to say we should simply opt out, either through not voting at all, or through measures such as spoiling your ballot. Recently, Ronnie Kasrils has been reported as recommending spoiling your ballot as a way to indicate that you believe our current ANC government has let us down (though, more nuanced accounts of his statements to the media indicate that he’s recommending a vote for a minority party first, and only spoiling your ballot if none of those parties are palatable to you).

To make one thing clear: spoiling your ballot is a legitimate choice in a democracy. But it’s the wrong choice, because it misunderstands the point of voting, in that it begins with fealty to a chosen party, where that fealty allows you to either endorse the way that they are doing things, or instead, to simply withhold your support from them.

The right choice is to understand your vote as purely a tactical gambit, deployed in the manner that might best achieve the outcome you hope to achieve. Signalling disappointment with a political party isn’t effectively signalled through spoiling a ballot, in that the signal is far too noisy – in brief, there is no way of telling whether you spoilt your ballot because you’re incompetent, or because you were protesting the electoral system rather than the party you ostensibly didn’t vote for.

A vote for an opposition party shifts the balance of power, however minutely. Voting for nobody, by contrast, indirectly rewards the incumbent through denying an opposition a chance to govern – especially when dealing with a significant majority such as the one the ANC enjoys in South Africa. A spoilt ballot might well decrease the majority party’s proportion of votes cast, but a vote for an opposition party will decrease it further, and alert them to the fact that they cannot take your vote for granted in a far more transparent way.

The tactical element of each person’s vote is of course a matter that can only be clarified by the individuals themselves. For a middle class liberal type like myself, living in the Western Cape, a vote for the ANC in the provincial ballot might play a part in alerting the governing party (the Democratic Alliance, or DA) that their steadily increasing social conservatism is diametrically opposed to liberal ideas.

It doesn’t necessarily matter that the ANC is illiberal – the vote signals that the party that is supposed to be liberal seems to instead be more focused on attracting votes through playing on fears of social decay than on defending its ideological turf. (It’s a separate issue whether the turf is the correct one, or whether the short-term gaining of votes is sensible strategy on their part – I’m simply addressing the voters’ choices and how they might be made.)

On a national level, a vote for the DA might well be the best signal of disaffection with the ANC – but then again, a vote for someone like the EFF might be more effective in the long run, because both the ANC and the DA are roughly centre to centre-right in economic terms, and the voice that’s missing in a poverty-stricken country like ours is the leftist one. Having a strong EFF presence in Parliament might be just what’s needed to shake the incumbent from their dogmatic slumbers, to paraphrase Hume.

And then, next election, you get to make the same choices again. The key thing to remember is that they are choices, and that you owe nobody your loyalty. If it’s the long-term future of the country that you care about, then you should vote in the manner that you think best supports a prosperous future for the country – not in a manner that best supports a prosperous future for any particular party.

Opinions on opinions on opinions

First published on The Daily Maverick

Gareth Cliff’s opinion-piece on the nomination of Mogoeng Mogoeng to be South Africa’s next Chief Justice attracted a number of interesting comments. However, it also attracted comments which had little to do with any arguments advanced, but instead appeared to be attempts at disqualifying Cliff from holding any views at all.

“Stick to your day job” was a sentiment that appeared at least twice, alongside some less subtle ad hominem attacks. And yes, we can justifiably wonder about how easily a radio and television personality can rebrand themselves as a public intellectual. But finding such a transition implausible or believing it to be difficult does not make it any less possible to do so – and it is distinctly anti-intellectual to rule out the possibility that sensible noises and words can come from surprising sources.

This sort of reaction would be no surprise to Cliff himself. His open letter to President Zuma attracted 876 comments – many quite hostile – as well as a column by Andile Mngxitama asserting that Cliff was the face of ‘white supremacy’. Sadly, and predictably so, it proved impossible (at least for a white man such as myself) to argue that we could – and should – attempt to separate the arguments from the personalities and politics of racial identity in this case.

My reply to Mngxitama gave rise to the sort of reaction that makes one wonder whether the strategy that Samantha Vice argues for – that white South Africans should refrain from comment on racial matters – is simply a matter of self-protection rather than principle. I don’t mean that, of course – there’s no question that her viewpoint is sincere, regardless of the fact that I believe it to be wrong.

But there’s a limit to how many times you can hear a considered position being dismissed on grounds of your racial identity, or have people calling on you to be kicked out of your university, as SACP Provincial Secretary Khaya Magaxa did following my reply, before you start to wonder whether it’s really worth the bother.

Of course, if all of us who – rightly or wrongly – believe we have something to contribute to these conversations took the more abusive advice of our readers to heart, we’d simply stop trying to contribute. And while some might consider that a blessing, and move on to complaining about something else, others might think that the space for debate and reflection would narrow appreciably, leaving us all impoverished.

There are at least three broad issues of relevance here. The first is something I’ve previously discussed, namely the fact that Internet comment facilities seem to self-select for vitriol and abuse. People who want to express the viewpoint that ‘you suck’, or some more sophisticated variant of that, seem far more likely to jab their index fingers at their keyboards than those who are interested in communication and debate.

Second, it seems to my mind at least plausible that we’re living though an era in which ideas themselves are not that welcome. Where, as Neal Gabler recently put it in a column John Maytham was kind enough to alert me to, the “public intellectual in the general media [has been replaced] by the pundit who substitutes outrageousness for thoughtfulness”. Despite the demise of postmodernism in academic circles, it still lives and breathes in the popular viewpoint that everybody’s opinion is equally worthy of consideration, and that individuals are under no special obligation to set aside their opinions in favour of what the evidence points to.

And third, there’s the issue of the extent to which any person or collective of persons should be accountable to others in the first place. The triumph of democracy as a political system has perhaps led to a generalisation of the idea that the majority should be trusted – and when you combine this with the previous two points, the frightening reality dawns that “the people” are often revealed as short-sighted and shrill.

But it’s of course not always true that the majority are right, or are to be trusted. We can all get things wrong, and we can sometimes do so simultaneously. To go back to the actual content of the Cliff column last week (as well as mine, and to a lesser extent Ivo Vegter’s), the idea that something like profound religious faith is a concern when discussing the role of Chief Justice is a genuine issue, admitting of substantive debate, in that it is far from obvious that we can wall off certain states of mind and motivations from others.

Yet even if the majority are not always right, feedback from an audience – whether it be a readership or a population of voters – is an essential vehicle for correction in that you can gain significant insight into what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong. James Thorpe left an interesting comment on Cliff’s piece (timestamped Wed, 7 Sep 2011 at 09:41), in which this point was made.

He argued for some sort of reader-feedback mechanism here on The Daily Maverick. Apart from the comment wall, number of Tweets, Facebook ‘likes’ and Google ‘plusses’, the editorial staff obviously have access to figures indicating the number of times a page was loaded and which other Internet portals saw fit to link to it. Some may say that this is more than enough feedback – except, as Thorpe points out, we often don’t know what people liked and disliked about the column in question, and readers of course don’t have access to the hit rate and referrer data.

And then, of course, we can ask the question of whether this data is useful to readers at all. Or rather, whether it should be. Again, as mentioned above, does it matter whether a particular column is ranked well or poorly via some democratic process? It might well matter on the level of ego, for the writers themselves, but is providing this sort of facility plausibly an obligation on the part of the publication in question, and would it add value to readers?

While I was initially tempted to agree with Thorpe on this issue, it’s now not at all clear what anyone would gain. Publications themselves should have an editorial position, and publish what they think worthwhile, whether readers like it or not. There is of course a limit to this, in that it’s no good to sacrifice all your readers for the sake of principle. They can be guided in their decisions on what to publish through viewership figures, as well as through comments.

For readers, what you read – whether in the columns themselves or in the comments left – should itself be the reward. Asking for the decision about what to consider worth reading or not to be delegated to others via an additional mechanism could perhaps be an abrogation of the responsibility to form our own judgements, and then, to guide the judgements of the writers and editors, as well as other readers, through written feedback.

In short, I’d like to believe that it’s the case that the free market of ideas espoused by John Stuart Mill can still function in a world where we are encouraged to summarise complex preferences in the pressing of a button labelled “like”, or “+1”. We participate in that market, and contribute to its vibrancy and efficiency, through expressing our views. If they are persuasive, others will hopefully come to share them, and lesser content will be discarded for more substantial contributions.

Likewise, lesser publications might also themselves fall by the wayside if they persist in offering their readership sub-standard fare. It’s not at all clear to me that additional mechanisms for feedback would make this particular market more efficient. However, given the importance of the market in question, practical suggestions for doing so would certainly merit consideration.

The sheer volume of content generated on a website such as this – not to mention all the others we have access to – mean that interesting and potentially important ideas can get lost in the noise. This column, then, is an attempt to highlight that one idea, as expressed in Thorpe’s comment. Do we (humans, rather than The Daily Maverick) need to hear more opinions on opinions, and if so, what should the mechanism for allowing this look like?

Errol Naidoo: still standing

Mr. Naidoo is on a recruitment drive, it seems. He particularly wants to recruit you into a “financial partnership”. It’s a simple deal – you give him money, and he carries on being a reactionary homophobe and underminer of civil liberties. His second newsletter this week again demonstrates a fair amount of “not quite getting the point”. Some choice examples:

God has recently opened some significant doors for Family Policy Institute. The evidence of my success is manifested in the daily demonization of the work of FPI by the liberal media.

Or, the evidence of how little sense you make, and how odious many (even some Christians) find your points of view to be, is manifested in the regular refutations and expressions of incomprehension that someone can be so pig-headed, morally blinkered, and opposed to all that makes a constitutional democracy worth living in.

My efforts to advance Biblical Christian values in Parliament, the media and general society have elicited the wrath of liberal secular humanists, who regard me as a grave threat to democracy.

Biblical Christian values are themselves a threat to democracy, dear Errol. So if you want to see them made law, so are you. How grave that threat is depends on which side of the fence you are. But your values, if applied literally and consistently, allow people very little choice in terms of things like who they can marry, what rights they have over their own bodies – even in terms of their attitudes towards gender equality. If you don’t believe that those things are worthwhile, that’s fine – you can try to make that case. But undermining those freedoms is unarguably a threat to democracy.

Significantly, what all of this does, is prove that Family Policy Institute is making inroads into areas the liberal elite consider their exclusive domain. Freedom of expression & other constitutional freedoms are defined by secular humanists and they alone decide what is acceptable or not!

Nope. They were defined by a consultative process which included many of your ilk. You’re free to spout your crap, and we’re free to tell you that you are a curious throwback to a primitive age, who wants us all to subjugate ourselves to (your interpretation of) the will of a creature from your favourite fairytale.

I believe our human rights and freedoms are a gift from God, and everything we do must reflect God’s sovereign rule in our personal lives and His supreme authority over our nation. That is why I battle daily on the frontlines of the culture war for your and my values. The Biblical Christian Worldview provides the only rational basis for a just, free and prosperous society.

Rational basis? Do you know what the word “rational” means? You may be right about the existence of ceiling cat, and I may be wrong – but the possibility of that is not premised on rational reflection. It’s about faith, and you don’t need faith when things can be known via rationality. Your own holy book can tell you these things, if you took your head out of your self-promoting pompous ass for long enough to think these matters through.

Following my submission on Gambling Law Reform to Parliament in January this year & later in May to the Dept of Trade & Industry in Pretoria, government’s policy on gambling seem to be moving in the right direction.

Damn, you’re so powerful. You remind me of a god, except perhaps with a little more ego.

Errol Naidoo

Well done.