President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses residents of Alexandra township. Picture: REUTERS/SUMAYA HISHAM
President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses residents of Alexandra township. Picture: REUTERS/SUMAYA HISHAM

Posturing, polls and predictions have inundated us in the lead up to election day on May 8. Will the ANC drop below 55%? What will that mean for President Cyril Ramaphosa’s ability to “clean up”? Can the DA hold on to the Western Cape, or the ANC to Gauteng? Are we about to see an era of ANC-EFF coalitions and that does that mean that president Julius Malema is just around the corner? How will the markets and the ratings agencies respond? 

And with that comes the endless agonising, in private and on all media: you should vote for the DA because the government needs a strong opposition; hold your nose and vote for the ANC because Ramaphosa needs a strong mandate; or what about Ace Magashule’s African Transfomation Movement (ATM) party? A very appropriate name, until someone else stole it from him.

How do we even find out about what the parties stand for. I was surprised that the only place I could find an almost comprehensive list of party manifestos was on the Social Surveys Africa website. I say almost because 18 of the parties standing don’t even have manifestos and, in some cases, don’t even have websites.

Alongside the debate — and fueling it — are the endless polls, many of which are highly suspect in the first place. The MarkData poll, for example, talks about what the electorate is going to do and yet the approach used is one of self-selection, which is certainly not representative of the electorate. The obsession with predicting the elections result is one of the oddest uses of statistical tools and methodology: why spend all that money and effort on predicting something that will be known within days. What exactly is the social value of these exercises that produce both varied and often dramatically inaccurate results?

Imagine if, instead being forced to close down due to funding cuts, community organisations had flourished in every corner of the country — demanding a fair share of government budgets and monitoring the implementation of the plans that flow from those budgets

The decision about who to vote for is both difficult and important. The results of the election will have a significant effect on SA’s future — perhaps for decades. But the intensity of the discussion suggests that voting every few years is the only impact we can have on the way our country is governed.  

That marks a hollowing out of the idea and practice of democracy that inspired millions of South Africans in the revolt against apartheid when community organisations blossomed around the country to demand improved housing, electricity, water supply, municipal services and better education.

The transition to democracy between 1990 and 1994 sucked the air out of this community mobilisation, as if somehow voting in a democratic government was the end of history, and things could only get better from there for everyone, as long as we voted in each subsequent election.

Some progress has been made despite all the noisy pessimism, in improving the lives of millions of South Africans, but we can still regret the opportunity lost to achieve so much more. Imagine if, instead being forced to close down due to funding cuts, community organisations had flourished in every corner of the country — demanding a fair share of government budgets and monitoring the implementation of the plans that flow from those budgets. Community vigilance of this sort would have made the local and provincial level corruption we have so much harder to get away with, as informed communities monitored the use of resources by politicians and officials.

We have seen what organisations such as the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and Equal Education can do, and how informed activism can highlight government failings and force changes and improvements. TAC exposed the AIDS denialism of the Thabp Mbeki years and can be credited with a major role in SA developing the largest programme of government-delivered antiretroviral treatment (ART) in the world. Those familiar with this space know that constant vigilance is needed to keep the government on track. Key to this success has been information, evidence-based activism, and a willingness to engage the government when the outcomes could be positive.

Our democracy would be greatly enhanced if citizens acted to hold government accountable between elections and did not see voting occasionally as their only contribution. This requires both oganisation and information. 

Social research can be effectively used for evidence-based policy planning and to put accurate, properly researched information in the hands of communities to monitor the extent to which the government is living up to the promises made to voters in election campaigns and in the development plans and budgets produced by all levels of government. This is of far greater value to our democracy than the parlour game of predicting election results currently being played by so many researchers.

• Russell is CEO of Social Surveys.