The economics of the 2021 elections: when your enemy ‘…

Take unintended consequences. I spent two years of my life reporting on what was first called the Codesa Convention for a Democratic South Africa, then Codesa, and finally simply “the multi-party negotiations”.

The discussions took place outside Johannesburg airport in a disused convention center, the World Trade Center, which had the advantage of having many rooms where the actual horse trading took place.

I still believe that what came out of these negotiations is one of the most remarkable achievements in modern history. The Constitution is a model of balance, rationality and moderation. But if you were to criticize it, one point to make is that many of the constitutional stipulations were rooted in the immediate political dynamics of that particular moment.

One of the guiding principles of the Constitution was inclusiveness, which was understandable as many of the 27 parties present feared they would disappear when the elections finally took place (they did). The ANC was pulling the other way, fearing that all inclusiveness would mean it would not be able to implement its own policies.

In the end, as with everything else, there was a compromise. The most important of these was proportional representation as a voting mechanism. One of the things proportional representation does is make room for small parties. Why did the ANC make this concession at the time? Lots of reasons, but mostly, I think, because he recognized that even with proportional representation, it would still be by far the biggest party. At that time, it seemed impossible that the ANC would ever win less than a majority of the votes.

Hello, unintended consequences. The greatest significance of the recent local elections is that, for the first time, the ANC won less than half of the votes.

This is the same party that won nearly 70% of the vote at its peak. The consequences of this change are enormous. This means, of course, that government by agreement and consensus will be the rule rather than the exception.

And, in the process, we’re going to see some strange things. Hello, opportunity cost. The opportunity cost is the loss of alternatives when a particular alternative is chosen. The most visible aspect of this is the EFF’s decision to vote, uninvited, for DA candidates.

Why did EFF do this? In a way, it’s obvious. EFF has big rejection problems; having been ousted by the ANC, his desire for revenge against his former lover outweighed his loathing for DA politics.

Tactically, he seeks the destruction of the Cyril Ramaphosa faction within the ANC and the rise of the Radical Economic Transformation faction. The easiest way to do this is to hand over a bunch of large municipalities to the DA, as it is more important to them who loses than who wins. And, of course, this increases their status as power brokers, since they can break coalitions as easily as they formed them.

Which brings us to the complexity. It’s going to be a hairy period. In this case, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, but only for a moment, after which the enemy of my enemy becomes my enmity, and my friends become my friends. Or something.

I want to believe that all of this is a step forward, because the shared power has to be more honest than the dominant power. In life, complexity is negative because it suggests confusion and difficulty. In economics, this is positive because complex economies work better than simple ones, and it is because of interdependence, specialization, diversity, pathways of innovation and competition.

But in these local elections, it is easy to see that the result is the contrary; a cacophony of quarrels and stabbing in the back. We will see. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest dealer, please click here.

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