South Africa’s 2024 election: Some thoughts

Votes in a democracy are secret. That doesn’t stop everyone I know talking about South Africa’s 2024 election – it’s going to be a big one.

Here we are again, going to the polls to vote for a democratic government.

On May 29, 2024, South Africans will be able to go to an election venue and put their crosses on not one but three different ballot papers. Here’s the gist:

  • One ballot paper (the national one) will elect 200 people to a 400-member parliament. We vote for a political party, and those parties then nominate people to serve in parliament on a proportional basis. As I understand it, there will be 52 parties on that list.
  • A second ballot paper is a new addition to our options. The other 200 members of parliament get elected here, and there are both parties and independent candidates on them. The lists vary according to which of the nine provinces you are in.
  • The third ballot elects provincial governments and also includes parties and independent candidates.

This summarises my understanding of my reading on news sites, the IEC website and government publications). I may have some nuances wrong but one thing is clear: that’s one complicated set of choices!

Decide who to vote for: what’s at play? 

I am not going to go into party manifestos or track records or promises, or even the merits and demerits of the many, many election posters decorating our landscapes. I’m not a political commentator and it’s not my place to suggest how other people should cast their votes.

But I am good at scanning the information landscape and detecting patterns and things to think about. Based on that, I am going to suggest some general principles which I am applying to the mayhem, and which might help others.

The principles have two layers, one looking specifically at the 2024 election, and one looking at more general leadership issues. 

First, what to think about when looking at the ballot papers

The national ballot appears to be simple enough: pick your party and vote for it. But there are ways in which it is not at all simple. We don’t have a political situation in which there are two or three major parties and you decide which is the least awful. We have one party that has been in the majority for 30 years and many medium-sized to very small opposition parties. It is widely being predicted that the majority party (the ANC) will lose its majority for the first time this year. And that means they will have to enter into a coalition with other parties.

If you support the ANC, the choice is clear: vote for them. But if you don’t support them you are in a guessing game: how will any of the parties on offer perform in a coalition? They won’t be at liberty to implement their promises and policies and manifestos, so scanning those is interesting but not germane to the realpolitik of a coalition. 

If you are an opposition voter, I’d say you need to consider that the party you vote for will be sending its leaders to the negotiating tables and corridors where the deals will be made. So it’s not even about your faith in the party structures. Instead, it’s the calibre of the people who are party to the deal. And in that case I am looking for people who have the good of the country at heart, who are pragmatic rather than arrogant and who have some governance experience. In other words, people who can be trusted to form a coalition that will be a stable government. 

The second, new ballot is a chance to do something new: one can vote for a party, but that’s what we’ve been doing since 1994 and the lack of constituency accountability has always been a problem. For the first time, you can vote for an actual person (assuming one is standing in your region). That’s what I am going to do, applying the same principles as above: are they pragmatic? Experienced? Do they have the good of the country at heart?

Provincially, there is the new option of an independent candidate. But I would suggest the baseline for voting should be the performance of the existing government in your province. This level of government is closer to home and easier to assess, and should make a voting decision relatively clear. 

Some overall thoughts about leadership

I’m relying here on earlier pieces I have written about leadership and governance to suggest some general principles to guide your thinking.

Beware of glamour

In a 2017 article, looking at the end of the Barack Obama era in the United States, and the start of Donald Trump’s presidency, I wrote: “Every time I see another glowing tribute to the lovely Obamas I think this: just because I like the look of the Obamas, just because they appeal to my muddled left-wing sensibilities, just because they appear to be people of understated charm and sophistication, just because they radiate the kind of glamour that works for me, that does not mean that Obama has been a good president, or that he did not (perhaps) ruthlessly climb his way to the top of the Democratic pile to get to the White House. He is a politician and you don’t get to be President of the United States by being nice to musicians and making dreadful puns over a Thanksgiving turkey.” 

In short, glamour does not necessarily make for good governance. When surveying the parties and people on offer in South Africa in 2024, try to put aside personal likes and tendencies to hero worship: what you see on the surface may have no bearing on what that person or party is actually like.

To do that, you are going to have to do some work: 

In a July 2020 post, I wrote: “Paying attention over long periods of time to the detail of how a political party or an organisation works is hard and complicated work, which most people just don’t have the time or the inclination to do. And so, again and again, we fall for charm over hard work, and for style over substance.” In 2024, to the extent that you can, try to assess people and parties in terms of their track records rather than on what they promise.

Conclusion

As I said at the beginning, this is a complicated election, and it brings the possibility of substantial change to the political landscape. Because of that, it’s tempting to feel that voting is just too much of a guessing game, that there’s so much in play that the meaning of one vote can’t be discerned. But not voting is not an option – for me anyway. And so I will go and do the best I can, with hope that the people I vote for will also do the best they can.

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Main picture: Filiz Elaerts, Unsplash

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