Lies and damn lies: Great election, where’s the after-party?


This article first appeared in Daily Maverick on 07 May 2014

Hasn’t this election build-up been fun? Don’t you want the good times to keep rolling? Why not keep playing the democracy game after Wednesday?

So, who will win these elections, do you think? Just kidding, we know that the ANC will return to Parliament with 60% or more of the vote, the DA will get below 25% and the EFF will come third. The broad outcomes of this election are predictable.

(Remember, friends, that ‘we know’ is really code for ‘I have been indulging in confirmation bias, just like everyone else’. If the above predictions are grossly inaccurate please send any hats and condiments care of the editor and I will join Mr Lekota for lunch.)

There’ll be curiosities and charts galore in the days to come. They’ll be pored over and pawed at and pooh-poohed and we’ll say things like ‘I knew that party would lose its seat’ and ‘I had a funny feeling that that party would retain its one seat in Parliament. You know, it’s good for democracy’.

Some of us will be so drunk with democracy that we will keep drinking until the new Parliament is announced. There will a few new names and lots of old ones, followed by talking and more analysis, followed by light snacks.

There will be one or two new ministries. Some old ones will disappear, along with any missed targets and goals not achieved (and here one wonders what will happen to Clean Audit 2014 if the department of co-operative governance and traditional affairs disappears). People will lose big jobs and gain big jobs in government, although most of the people who have the biggest jobs now will continue to have big jobs in the new administration. They just might not be the same jobs.

Democracy is fun and it can keep you entertained more than twice in a five-year cycle. Also, it’s rude to ramble on in a pre-emptive, clever way about what happens after the voting before it’s even over. Voting and elections are the most important parts of democracy, and now is the time to celebrate them. Aren’t we having ourselves a big party doing just that?

Here’s the sad news and the rules of the game. Democracy is hard if you want to do it properly. Voting is messy and imperfect – a smart guy called Kenneth Arrow proved it. History moves around and around in circles and there’s too many bastards in every generation who use public office for personal gain. Then there are the bastards who buy and sell the first bunch of bastards by the pound.

You have to keep vigilant and keep a packed lunch on you at all times if you want to benefit from this democracy of ours. As Heavy D might have said, had he been a politician, ‘Now that we found democracy, what are we gonna do with it?’

What can we do with it? We can extend the audience participation segment of democracy beyond just voting. We can keep agitating for those important things we wanted from democracy before the elections rolled up, things like more transparency in party finances and better public education.

We can play a part in developing a culture of civic education. Before we beg the 18-year-olds of the day at election time to vote, we should spend time teaching them about how government works, what democracy is and how a democratic state can improve lives.

A proper civic education should show democracy’s potential for fairness and justice. We should mention the names of Grootboom and Mazibuko along with the architects of our constitution for two important reasons. Firstly, to show that democracy is ordinary people, standing in front of a government, asking it to enforce their rights. Anyone can do it, like voting. Unlike voting, you can do it whenever you want.

Secondly, to emphasise that beautiful laws are not democracy by themselves. Democracy is a full-time job. The Municipal Systems Act was a fairly handsome beast a decade ago but it’s just had a bit of a facelift and this is not its first one. Its new amendments are a legal attempt to close loopholes and to enforce minimum standards for top civil servants in municipalities. The original Act hasn’t prevented maladministration or underperformance in municipalities across the country.

The latest amendments will not work without the political will to enforce accountability. That’s the hard bit. It’s the nerve system that lies beneath the subcutaneous layer of democracy, and most scalpels don’t cut that deep.

So, where were we? Oh, yes, democracy. Tricky thing, constant uphill and mostly not much fun. Why bother? You don’t *have* to do more than vote. You don’t even have to vote. You can do other things or you can do nothing. Because democracy.

So go and vote. Or stay at home. Elections are democracy’s big party. Just remember that after the party comes a hangover. After the hangover comes a clean-up operation and most of the politicians won’t help you with that. You don’t have to do anything before, during, or after the elections if you don’t want to, but remember that you were warned about the politicians.