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Tread carefully… Low voter turnout means your support could be just 15%

01 October 2021 Gareth Stokes

As the 2021 municipal elections draw near, South Africans have another opportunity to exercise our political will at the polls. This writer wonders how democratic and inclusive the process will be given the pandemic overhang. Why, we wonder, is nobody talking about the possibility of a low election turnout due to thousands of fearful citizens opting out of queuing to cast their votes. We are, after all, struggling to get ordinary citizens to leave the sanctuary of their homes after 8pm or join a handful of their friends for a sit-down meal at a restaurant.

The absurdity of democratic systems

Once again, dear reader, we are forced to face up to the absurdities and irrationalities of our democratic system. In a normal election year, we could expect a 40% voter turnout to choose the next ruling party. Under this scenario a 51% majority is secured by just 20% of eligible voters. If, under Covid-19, we see a lower voter turnout, say 30%, the winner would secure as little as 15% of the total possible count. But there is another problem. 

There is anecdotal evidence to support that lockdown protocols were followed differently by those in rural versus urban environments. And similarly, those in townships and informal settlements responded differently to those in the suburbs. Which begs the question: Could we face a dearth of cautious, rational people at the 2021 polls? Alternatively, one might wonder whether South Africa has ever had enough cautious, rational people at the polls… We have had no qualms in re-electing the African National Congress (ANC) despite its frequent betrayals. 

Speaking of rational, why has no mention been made of finding a virtual solution to South Africa’s voting system. In a world of AI and machine learning; blockchain; connected devices and data analytics there should be a way to build a trusted solution to collect and verify votes. Perhaps an ID number plus thumb or retina scan delivered by a smartphone to a cloud server; where algorithms could identify and strip out any fraud [aside from coercion, possibly]. I mean, we have been forced to do everything else online these days! But alas, the reason we are pushing ahead with the elections this year is because the electoral law says we have to. And the reason we avoid going the digital route is it would make voting too cost effective and simple. Heaven forbid citizens might then start demanding their say in decision making on a more regular basis. 

The RSA Citizens’ Voting App

Imagine a new world where you receive a notification from your RSA Citizens’ Voting Application inviting you to express your view on a matter of importance to your country. The message from government might read: “We are planning on spending R20 billion per year with a Turkish-based company to provide emergency power to Eskom. This contract will run for 10-years, and the power generating infrastructure will be anchored off the following ports…” You would be required to read the background on the project; then use your ID number & thumb print to lock in your ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘abstain’. The poor don’t have smartphones counter could be addressed by issuing every citizen with an ‘at cost’ smartphone, paid for from the fiscus. 

As a quick aside, government is always lusting after new state-owned business opportunities. Imagine an uncaptured Denel or similar being repurposed to manufacture smartphones for Africa! And while we are on this track, why has government never set up an SOE to build basic housing and municipal infrastructure? We have Sanral for roads; Transnet for rail infrastructure; Eskom for electricity; but when it comes to clinics, housings or schools we insist on going out to tender to a sea of insatiable tenderpreneurs. Oops, we inadvertently stumbled into of those rare ‘asked and answered’ moments. 

If citizens had a greater say in critical decision making, we could sidestep many of the mistakes that our politicians make; or at the very least, politicians could get a sense for the mainstream sentiment before pushing ahead with an ill-thought idea. A citizens’ vote [proceeding on the assumption that government takes our opinion on board] would almost certainly have shot South African Airways (SAA) out of the sky. And very few rational individuals armed with all the facts would ascent to the Karpowership deal, given the fog of allegations hanging over this and other ‘big ticket’ projects. The obvious risk to citizen decision making would be the lies and obfuscation that government foists on us in reaching those decisions, no better illustrated than the never-ending SAA saga

Blue sky, but still 100% state-owned?

The airline recently took to the skies after 500+ days of business rescue and grounding, despite the deal with its new commercial partner being unclear. An interview on RSG Geldsake suggests that government has well and truly fooled the public about the resolution of the matter. “The government and [private sector] consortium announced a few months ago with great fanfare that Takatso will pump R3 billion into SAA over three years [in return for] a 51% shareholding,” said journalist Ryk van Niekerk. But the Takatso Consortium was apparently not involved with the airline operations when it took to the skies again, end September 2021. “We are still busy with the transaction; it is a complex one, lots of moving parts [and with] a long legacy, as you well know,” explained Takatso CEO, Gidon Novick. Wow. This writer had expected the worst; but this revelation took the proverbial cake. 

Whatever happens from here we are 100% certain that South African taxpayers have not seen the taillights on this still-ailing airline. A couple of comments from readers, where a transcript of the Novick interview was published, sum up the sentiment. “I do not understand how one relaunches a distressed company without the majority shareholder on-board; this does not inspire any confidence in the so-called new SAA,” writes one. “There is no buyer for SAA,” accuses another. “There is a potential buyer, and by the look of things they have one foot in the back door; if they want out, they will get out”. Our favourite, the short and sweet: “Six planes, a toxic business partner, billions due on unredeemed tickets, and a R3 billion price… This does not make any sense”. A rational taxpayer would never have rubber stamped this rubbish!

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