Gareth van Onselen: What the U.S. Could Learn from South Africa's Young Democracy

Gareth van Onselen returns for another chat with Ivan about politics, COVID response and elections in South Africa and the U.S.
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Gareth van Onselen

South African Journalist, Political Analyst and Author

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South Africa moved to a severe lockdown last spring. While the death rate has been seven times lower than the UK, the economy is now suffering. South Africa’s existing corruption is also complicating an economic restart.

South Africa is a “young” democracy (25 years) so it’s more flexible on viewing its Constitution as a living document, vs. the U.S. which insists on applying its 244-year-old Constitution to modern life.

South Africa is reforming their electoral system to allow for independent candidates, moving towards more direct representation. Hopefully this will have consequences for the rampant corruption.

Dark money in politics is as big a problem in South Africa as the U.S., but recently South Africa has changed rules about fundraising to require donations be made public above a certain amount.


IVAN STEGIC: Hey Everyone! You’re listening to The TEN7 Podcast, where we get together every fortnight, and sometimes more often, to talk about technology, business, and the humans in it. I’m your host Ivan Stegic.

My returning guest today is Gareth van Onselen. Gareth is a South African journalist, political analyst and author, and I spoke to him at the end of 2019, in what we published as Episode 78 of the podcast. We covered a great deal of ground in explaining South African politics at the time, and we touched on some of the parallels between it and U.S. politics.

Today I’d like to focus our discussion on U.S. politics and try to understand it in a more global context. We’re recording this before Election Day itself, but you’re listening to this after November 2020.

So, hello future. What’s it like there? Who won? I have so many questions. Welcome Gareth. It’s lovely speaking with you again.

GARETH VAN ONSELEN: Hi. Thanks very much for having me. I never thought I’d get a second shot at this. I’m grateful to be back.

IVAN: It’s just so nice to hear your voice, and I’m glad we can talk about something that’s maybe a little closer to this side of the pond as opposed to that side of the pond.

GARETH: Yes. Yes. U.S. politics is almost local everywhere, because everyone I know is interested in one way or another, so, let’s go at it.

IVAN: Before we delve into that, I want to ask how South Africa is doing right now, especially with a pandemic going around? I was reading an article in the BBC, they said that death rates are seven times lower than the UK, and that even though it was feared that the system would be overwhelmed, it seems like cases are flat, and that’s not going on? What’s the current status in SA?

GARETH: So, South Africa’s an interesting case study on that front. I suspect every country in the world could write a book about their particular experience on the COVID, and I could talk for several hours about South Africa’s. But in a nutshell we were very quick to move to a lockdown, quite a severe lockdown, early on when the virus began to spread, and I think that proved very effective and was probably the right thing to do for the first couple months.

But I think our government hung onto that lockdown too long. And given our economic situation, which is dire with huge unemployment and a lot of the private sector on a knife edge because we’re just really backing economically, I think COVID pushed a lot of people, a lot of businesses over the edge and has had a devastating effect on the economy. And hindsight is 20/20 vision, but I think the long and the short of it is things are worse now, because we hung on to lockdown a bit too long.

IVAN: Really? Even though death rates are down, the economy has been decimated, I guess.

GARETH: Yeah, as far as death rates go, and the impact of the disease in terms of caseload and number of people in hospitals on ventilators and that kind of thing, it never really manifested here to the same degree it did in places like Italy where it went off the scale. In part I think that can be contributed, I think, to an early and very speedy response, but I think we just didn’t get struck as hard as the rest of the world to be frank, which is a good thing. I’m sure there’ll be some version of a second wave, but almost negligible in terms of deaths which is encouraging.

IVAN: That is encouraging. I’m sorry for the economic effects. Of course we’re battling it in the U.S. as well, as so many other economies across the globe are as well.

GARETH: Yes, this thing has had a devastating effect everywhere, but South Africa was on a knife edge going into COVID, and it’s really done some acute and serious and I suspect long lasting damage which is sad. And the test is now going to be how well the country can emerge from that and come up with some solutions that actually have an impact.

IVAN: And it’s not just the economy and having issues with it before going into the pandemic. You’ve been battling corruption as we talked about in the last podcast as well. But that seems to be moving the needle a little bit. I read that there was some more enforcement lately, and that there’s been some good moves towards at least starting to police the corruption that’s been going on.

GARETH: Corruption is in one sense, I would imagine certainly for an international audience a kind of a red herring, because there’s no getting around the fact that it is a profound problem, and we have corruption on a grand scale here that has cost the country many billions of Rands. But the fundamental problem with the economic edifice is the wrong kind of policies.

There’s just no attempt and a kind of permanent hostility to opening up the economy and getting the power of the free market behind South Africa’s growth and its economic trajectory. And corruption certainly holds back any prospect of economic growth, but I would say the primary problem is a policy problem, and that’s really what needs to change.

IVAN: Well, speaking of corruption we’ve definitely seen that in the United States with some of the reporting that we’ve seen. And the nepotism that we’ve seen in South Africa is kind of the same thing that we have going on in the U.S. here. I know you don’t speak for the whole world, and maybe not even for the whole of South Africa. But can you articulate what it’s like to be on the outside of the U.S. political system and what you’re seeing with current events in the U.S., with the pandemic, with the misinformation that’s happening, with ignoring the science behind the spread of the pandemic? What does it look like from your perspective?

GARETH: Well, I think there’s quite a complex answer to that question, and it depends who you’re talking to. So, someone like myself who is quite well versed in politics and takes a serious interest in global politics and reads quite a lot, you are presented in South Africa primarily with the main headlines in the forms of international news agencies like CNN and BBC. And that kind of thing, and the kind of stuff that makes international huge headlines is usually the most controversial, or the most outlandish. And certainly when Trump is on the table, the most likely to provoke some kind of outrage. So, you kind of get a very base level sense that there’s a huge problem in the U.S. with a very difficult personality at the center of it.

But if you do read more carefully like I do, and you have a bit more interest in politics, the problems I think are exacerbated the deeper you go. If you watch briefings by Anthony Fauci, or read up on comparative responses in other countries, it does seem that the central administration in America really tried to ride roughshod over a very complicated problem, which required nuance and a lot of complex decision-making and reason and patience and a huge emphasis on explaining your actions to the public.

And it seems to have failed on all these counts and as a result, seems to have lost the faith of the public in whatever actions it took, whether at state level they were good actions or at national level they were bad actions, it kind of seems to be a hostility to the way in which public representatives explain themselves, or the kind of programs of actions they take to address the problem.

I think the consequence of if you look a little deeper from an international perspective and you read a bit deeper than just the main headlines that define the way in which Corona in America is being portrayed, you get a sense that there is a big disjuncture between the kind of policies that people roll out at national and state level an the degree to which those decisions are trusted and understood by the public.

IVAN: Given that you are reading a whole lot deeper into it and that you’re watching the briefings and doing the comparative analysis, do you see any precedent for this kind of response having happened either in other countries now, for this pandemic, or in the past? And what could we potentially learn from that?

GARETH: By precedent do you mean has there been a similar kind of emergency that you can compare America’s response to today?

IVAN: Yes, I think so.

GARETH: Look, not offhand. I mean, I’m sure there is, I’d have to think carefully as to what that is. I mean the natural point of comparison of course is other countries, and there are upsides and downsides to the American response. The one is this kind of constant tension between science and politics, between Trump and his advisors essentially at national level.

But on the other hand, if we compare what happened in America to South Africa, our president, president Cyril Ramaphosa would address the nation every three or four weeks, and he would do that via the national broadcast. There were no journalists present. He never took any questions. None of his decisions or the decisions of the National Command Council which were effectively determining what South Africa’s response were ever in any serious way put before the Fourth Estate.

One of the upsides of America, however bad a condition it is, is that it has a very lively Fourth Estate that is able to critically interrogate these decisions and put questions to the president. So, you kind of have both sides of the coin there, sort of, disregard for evidence and reason, but at the same time a lot of scrutiny and critical debate about those decisions.

IVAN: I don’t know that it matters because there are almost like there’s two realities here in the United States, right? There’s this camp, this group of people that choose to believe what they want to believe, and then there’s this group that chooses to believe the data and the facts and tries to make rational decisions based on evidence. And it almost feels like anything that the administration says is going to be accepted by one of the groups and debunked by the other group, and neither of the groups cares what the other group really thinks.

GARETH: Yes, I think that’s absolutely right. The U.S. is deeply and fundamentally divided, and it plays out exactly in the way you’ve said. And the problem is exacerbated further by the nature of the pandemic which was, this was very complex, ambiguous so far as policy goes, emergency. And to this day, even if you just look at what experts and scientists have to say and what reason and doctrine evidence has to say, there’s still a lot of argument as to what the right solution was. People don’t necessarily know yet.

There’s a big debate about whether Sweden got it right with no lockdown, or whether those countries that went into lockdown got it right. There’s a lot of post-facto information which is difficult to judge to what degree it was right or wrong because the point of lockdown is to stop the caseload growing and once you’ve stopped it you can never know what would’ve been, so you can’t really prove your case which makes it difficult for people who implement a lockdown to say that it was the right decision.

IVAN: Right.

GARETH: And you have experts on both sides that are equally divided, some of whom are partisan and not necessarily being honest or truthful, but some who are very good on both sides and can make very powerful cases. And I think the brutal truth is that we’re only going to know 100% what the right response was in five or 10 years’ time.

I think that the point you make is absolutely right. I think that there are two realities in America. Look, that’s not particular to America, there are a lot of countries where that applies, but it’s particularly an acuter problem in America at the moment. And it’s not just political, or at least the political infects every element of society, so you see this kind of division playing itself out amongst scientists and amongst thought leaders, and it can be very divisive.

Some of these people can take positions simply because it’s a partisan position and it serves some political agenda. But a lot of scientists on both sides of the divide can make very strong cases, so the problem is exacerbated by the fact that COVID is this very complicated crisis that doesn’t necessarily have a clear cut solution.

We don’t know which way things are going to go. We don’t know which solution in retrospect was the best solution, and it’s a very confusing environment to then introduce to a political atmosphere that is highly divided and binary, and it just exacerbates all those fault lines that exist already.

IVAN: I think the most frustrating thing to me as someone who is, I think a scientist at heart and who likes data and evidence, is that even though there are nuances to how scientists interpret the spread of the virus and what might be the best way to deal with it, there are still some very simple fundamental things that aren’t negotiable. We know the virus spreads through coughing and through the air and through sneezing, and it’s a very simple thing to wear a mask and to socially distance.

I think there’s evidence to show that that improves. But yet there is this focus on fundamental civil liberties that simply should be ignored when there’s a pandemic in place. And I think that’s the frustrating part for me. And I don’t have any context as to whether or not that happens, that this divide exists elsewhere as well.

GARETH: To think about the mask or those people that deny that masks do anything, the thing that’s interesting about them is, so let’s say for the sake of argument that masks don’t do anything, and it’s all a giant mistake, and it was a waste of people's time to wear masks. In terms of them actually preventing the disease spreading, let’s say that’s the argument and let’s say we agree with it. Well, would there be any benefit to a mask outside of that? I think there are behavioral benefits that are indisputable.

I mean, for one, it stops you touching the nose on your face. ‘cause there is a barrier there. Secondly, it makes you aware that there is a problem, and you need to distance yourself from other people, otherwise why would you have this barrier over your mouth. And those are quite profound impacts on the way people behave.

So, even if this thing had no material benefits, and I believe that it does, it’s literally is a physical barrier, so it must to some degree stop something passing between two people. It has behavioral benefits which are very important in a pandemic, and that signal two people internally that there is a problem that I need to be aware of how close I am to another person, about touching myself. It regulates behavior, and has a whole lot of benefits in that regard.

IVAN: That’s a good point. It’s not just that it might help you avoid spreading the virus or getting the virus, it’s that there are other benefits to it as well. I’m just still flummoxed and flabbergasted that there is no shared reality here, no shared acceptance. And I think that’s the greatest problem that we’re going to face should there be a change in the administration and even if there isn’t a change in the administration, there is no shared reality, and I don’t know what we can do to get there. And I’m open to hearing what you think.

GARETH: This thing about shared realities, you have to be a bit careful with them. Because, I mean, I think they’ve always been, you can use the word two realities, or two interpretations of what’s best for America in broad terms, kind of republican and democratic world view. I think even those two world views have fractured somewhat over the last five or 10 years or so. But in broad terms it’s a kind of universal truth that for a very long period of time there’ve been these two dominant world views in America.

I think the problem in the current environment is the degree to which people have hunkered down in each world view. They’ve become far more fundamental, and it’s illustrated by the degree to which I think the left has become quite hysterical at the extremes, and the right from the tea party through to Trump, through to whatever has become quite extreme on its far side. And both of these factions are having a powerful influence on the world views of the broader democratic and republican views. There doesn't seem to be a moderate center anymore.

I mean, a president like Roosevelt, it was very hard to distinguish him as a republican. He could’ve been a democrat. He had a very moderate centrist view. And that kind of president is not really possible in America at the moment. You’ve got to belong to one camp or the other, and your views have got to be fairly extremely aligned with that camp. And I think that is the problem, is that the kind of middle ground, not middle in neutral, just a kind of area which moderate democrats and moderate republicans could meet has been eradicated, and it’s just far more fundamental on both sides now.

IVAN: I’m glad you brought up FDR. You could not recognize him as a republican in the thirties compared to what republicans are today. And if I understand American history, which I never really studied in South African growing up as you well know, but he was the originator of the New Deal, and that’s when everything started to change. And I’m reminded of that because of what we have with this Supreme Court justice being heard right now with all the arguments that are happening right now with her hearings. She calls herself an originalist, which as I understand it, it’s what the Constitution was set out to be back when it was written and that’s what should be interpreted as applicable to what we have in society now.

I look at that and I think about it and I’m like, Wow, can we make some changes to the way we think and the way that that’s applied? I look at how South Africa’s Constitution was written in a modern age from scratch really, and looking at the lessons that have been learned by other democracies, and how that compares to the Constitution of the United States. And I wonder if the U.S. is at a disadvantage because there are people who refuse to apply the Constitution to modern day. And I wonder if South Africa isn’t fundamentally at more of an advantage over the U.S., because of the way the Constitution was written there.

GARETH: That’s a very complicated question. [laughter] One of the differences between South Africa and the U.S. is that the equivalent of our Supreme Court judges, our Constitutional Court judges are not appointed for life. I think there’s 11-year terms, I stand to be corrected, I’m not sure. So, that does mean that you get a bit more fluidity in the top bench. It’s not necessarily set in stone for long periods of time in the way that the Supreme Court is, which is probably a healthy thing. There are downsides to it, it does mean that it can be, well this kind of point is irrelevant in South Africa because the ANC’s been in government for 25 years, and so it’s had a very powerful influence in forming the judiciary, but yes, there could be some more political power in determining the nature of the Constitutional Court.

As far as the originalist versus what we would call in South Africa, transformationalist I guess, in other words people who believe the Constitution is a living document and should be changed, so that it aligns with South Africa’s needs and challenges, I think the Constitutional Court, it’s very hard to say which way that that falls. There are a number of areas in which it’s very rigid, and it won’t amend or interpret the Constitution any other way than the way in which it is written.

And there are some areas where it has been open to change, or at least interpretations that are not necessarily exactly what’s written on paper. That’s the consequence, I think, of being a young democracy. I think the idea of being an originalist or interpreting the Constitution as it was first intended is something that will only arise when your Constitution is 200 years old and 400 years and we’re not quite there yet.

IVAN: I’m wondering how South Africa will look 200 years from now, and how that’ll compare to where the United States is right now. And it’s so hard to tell and be able to predict that, and I guess we have to be able to change the Constitution and change the way we govern ourselves, so that it’s more applicable, and not be an originalist. That’s my philosophy, I think, and position.

GARETH: No, that’s fair enough. I personally am probably in total agreement with you on that front. I think it is bizarre to approach society as a kind of replica of a society that existed 400 years ago, it’s just palpably not practical or applicable to the way the world is today.

IVAN: I am looking forward to the election. I’m sure you will be watching the results come out just as much as we do, and I know there’s a lot of risk of there not being a result on the day of the election, and it is going into litigation and perhaps to the Supreme Court. I mean, everybody is talking about that as a potential outcome. And as I mentioned right at the top of the podcast, you’re listening to this after that’s already happened, so I’m curious to know what that is.

I’m interested in what your thoughts are around the actual election process itself, and how people vote, and absentee ballots and mail-in ballots, and early voting and so on. What does it look like in South Africa? I remember when I saw the first election, there were long lines of people waiting on the day of the election to get in to vote. Has that evolved over the last 25 years? What does our early voting process in the U.S. look like compared to the SA voting process you’ve experienced?

GARETH: So, there’s a very interesting process unfolding in South Africa at the moment. The Constitutional Court has ruled that our electoral system as it stands is insufficient, in that it doesn’t make room for independent candidates. In other words before this ruling the only way that you could be elected to Parliament or to a provincial legislature was on a party ticket. And they’ve passed this judgment saying that independent candidates should be allowed to stand, and that our electoral system needs to be reformed to incorporate that. Now that has a series of profound consequences for the way our whole electoral system is structured, and all political parties are currently scrambling to try and wrap their head around what the best way is to reorganize it.

One of the big ways that it has an impact or has a potential impact is this degree to which it affects direct representation. We’ve largely worked on a proportional representation ballot at national level, which means our democracy lacks a lot of the benefits of direct elections. And it’s one of the reasons I think that corruption has been allowed to grow out of control in the way it has is, because people aren’t responsible directly to a community.

So, I don’t know what the answer to that’s going to be, that Parliament’s going to come up with, but I think it is a healthy development, and you are going to see more direct democracy. You compare the stuff to the U.S., I mean, my blunt opinion is that it is just an antiquated system. It’s fundamentally wrong to be able to win more votes for the presidency and not be elected president. That just doesn’t make sense to me.

IVAN: Totally agree.

GARETH: You know, the delegates as substitutes for votes just doesn’t work for me either. I don’t know if that problem’s ever resolvable. There’s so many entrenched interest in that system that it seems to me that there’s no way in which electoral reform can happen in the U.S. in the immediate future. Something needs to break for it to become a big enough issue for people to be able to do that. And, yeah, I just don’t see that happening in the near future, and it’s a profound problem. And I don’t know what the solution is, and it just doesn’t work, it just doesn’t feel like a proper democracy to me.

IVAN: I agree, it doesn’t feel like a real democracy because every single office in the whole system except the presidential office is a proportional representation of one person’s vote. I think there needs to be a landslide victory on one side of the election for there to be any real electoral change, in the process at least. So, if there’s a landslide win from the democratic party in the election and there is both the House and the Senate and the Presidency, there will be all kinds of sweeping changes in my opinion. That’ll be a significant signal that change is needed. In my opinion that’s the only way that kind of change can happen.

GARETH: Really, you think if the democrats sweep, they’ll institute a whole other electoral form?

IVAN: I would love to see them do that, yes. [laughing] You think it’s unlikely?

GARETH: Yeah, I don’t think that’s going to happen.

IVAN: What do you think the first thing will be that the democrats do if there’s a landslide victory?

GARETH: I’m not sure. I’m not that well versed to be able to say that, but I think as far as Biden goes, if he’s elected the first thing he'll do is set about repairing the damage done to institutions. The people appointed, the undermining of certain key institutions, the merit of boards and executives and senior management at key institutions. I mean, I can’t see anything else being at the top of his agenda but that. It’s absolutely essential to democracy that its core institutions function properly, and I’m sure that’ll be the top of his agenda.

IVAN: And probably a changing response to the pandemic as well. Some sort of federal mandates that institute some scientific evidence-based principles that states need to follow. I would guess that would be something else.

GARETH: In the big picture, in a four-year term, I think the pandemic’s not going to, it’s another six months or so. I’m sure he’ll try to see it out, so to speak, with some authority and reverence before science and reason and evidence. But in terms of what the real policy battles are long-term. I mean, all the democrats will certainly want eight years. I think his focus is going to be elsewhere.

I think COVID will be more of a metaphor, in other words, for what his Presidency’s going to deliver than an actual significant factor in the next four years.

IVAN: Yeah. Nobody’s really talking about electoral reform, and maybe that’s why I’m not surprised that that would not be something you would choose to be at the top of the agenda in a new administration.


IVAN: But it feels like that’s been broken for a long time and the last election, kind of showed that it’s fundamentally broken.

GARETH: Well, it’s a vicious circle, because any administration that’s elected to power on the existing electoral system is obviously quite happy with what that system delivered. [laughing] So, there’s no incentive to change the system, you know, whether they’re republicans or democrats, and no one who actually has the ability to change the system would ever propose to do it.

IVAN: That’s very true. And I think money’s a problem as well, dark money, money in how fundraising happens. That would be awesome to see change as well. How does that work in South Africa? Are there limits on money? Can you raise money if you’re a political figure? What’s it like there?

GARETH: Well, one of the things that is exciting about South Africa for all its problems is the extent to which it is developing as a Constitutional democracy. And I mean I pointed earlier to these changes to the electoral system, but the same kind of thing is happening on the fundraising front. And there have been quite a serious judgment again from the Constitutional Court requiring some profound changes to the way in which parties fundraise and transparency with regards to fundraising them. All parties are required to now make public all donations, I can’t remember what the amount is, but it’s a very small threshold above that threshold. And it’s going to cause chaos for a lot of parties including the ANC (African National Congress) which have relied on what you call dark money for a long period of time.

I think the ANC is fundamentally corrupt on a profound level, and so when you’re that enmeshed in dark money and unethical money, you make a plan to get around whatever the regulations are. So whether or not it’ll stop that remains to be seen, but I think it’ll have a profound impact on the degree to which that does certainly impact on the ANC.

The ANC at the moment has been late in paying its staff members, I think two out of the last four months, hasn't paid salaries on time and that is a sign that its funding is being severely squeezed. So, we don’t have Super PACs and things like that here, but just a lot of-off-the-book donations, I think, which are impossible to track.

IVAN: Where do they come from? Or where are they suspected to come from? Are they from other countries, or rich people in South Africa? What are the possible sources?

GARETH: The name we have for much corruption in South Africa is called tenderpreneurship or whatever, I can’t say it properly, but basically the manipulation of tenders for private gain. And what happens is you get a tender from the state, and you get that tender because you have a connection in the state or the public service, and it’s awarded to you, You shouldn’t be awarded that tender and you get it anyway, and then as compensation for getting the tender you make a donation to the ANC. So, it’s kind of a vicious circle where the state is funding sections of the private sector, and the private sector returns the favor by giving a percentage back to the ruling party.

IVAN: Got it. So it’s the classic kickback mob approach, right? You control the work. You choose who works. You put it out in the open, and it’s kind of a fake process, and then that person gets the request. Here it’s called I think an RFP request for proposal, that would be the equivalent of the tender, and then once you get the tender, that money basically flushes back into the ruling party.

GARETH: Correct, and then you rig every part of the tender process. One of the problems with COVID is it’s been revealed, and this was a tipping point to a large degree in the public's appetite for this kind of thing, which is why you’re reading stories on the BBC as you intimated early about a clamp down on corruption, was a huge amount of the relief funds made available to the public in response to COVID were manipulated and stolen though fraudulent tenders for PPE, protective equipment and that kind of thing.

And it was the straw that broke the camel's back. There was huge outrage and even the ANC had to take action against it. But it followed exactly that formula, there were masks being sold back to the state at some hugely 300% inflated cost for what they actually cost. And just outrageous stuff.

IVAN: That is outrageous. One last thing I wanted to ask you about was also related to the process of actually voting. One of the things I’ve often thought is that voting machines are a great problem, right? They are black boxes controlled by private companies and corporations in the United States, whose software we have no idea how it functions. Wouldn’t it be great if we had an open source voting machine that everyone could examine and use and be able to validate and audit?

I think that would increase the confidence in the voting process, at least in the United States. Do these companies have a presence in South Africa? What does the vote counting and the vote process look like in South Africa?

GARETH: It’s entirely manual here. The idea of electronic voting has been moot in South Africa a couple of times, but it really shut down very quickly, and there’s very little appetite for it. I don’t think it’s possible technologically, logistically, financially and geographically. I mean we have huge vast, very difficult to reach rural areas in South Africa, and there are a whole lot of obstacles to it, but distrust also in technology is a big factor. So, the way ballots are counted is almost entirely manually done here.

IVAN: I feel like that’s actually good; I have to be honest. That actually sounds confidence building.

GARETH: Yeah, and, well it has a lot of advantages and political parties, every party gets to have a representative in the count room, an independent representative of their, well not independent, a party representative, but independent from the IEC, the (Independent) Electoral Commission, who can be in the room to validate the vote count at every level. So, as the vote count happens at a local voting station, there are people at provincial and national level, there’s a presence at the IEC Center in Victoria, which is where all the votes come in from every political party. And each party gets to validate every step of the way. So, they are enmeshed in the process, and their own credibility is on the line with regards to a lot of the vote count. So, it works well to bind political parties to the legitimacy of the process, yes.

IVAN: And what kind of voter turnout does South Africa have typically?

GARETH: The thing with democracies is voter turnout inevitably, no matter how wonderful your democracy and how great participation is, drops over time. So, we started out with what would be considered astronomical levels, sort of 70% or thereabout I think in 1994. But it systematically dropped since then, and I can’t remember what it was in the last election, but it’s down about 20 or 30% now, I think, into the low fifties. I don’t quite know, I can’t remember exactly, but it has dropped significantly. And it’s dropped even more profoundly in local government elections, because we have two sets of elections.

Every five years we have national and provincial elections, and then immediately the year after we have local government elections. Turnout in national and provincial elections is almost always higher. People care more profoundly about the national government’s election and provincial governments. And then it falls off dramatically for local government elections. Which is a real problem, because that’s where actual most real politics happens on the ground, and it’s a far more directly representative system that we have at the local government level. It’s not perfect but it’s much better than national and provincial elections, and participation rates are really low there. So that’s a real problem.

IVAN: Maybe the introduction of an independent candidate without a national party affiliation will have an effect on that.

GARETH: Well, we’ll see. South African politics is defined to a large degree by identity politics to be crude. People vote for political parties for a whole lot of complex reasons that often have little to do with what their actual policies are, and more to do with the degree to which people have identified with those parties, on both ends of the spectrum historically. So, independent candidates are fighting a lot of very powerful forces that are much bigger than them. They might be able to make some impact at local government level in certain metros or key cities, and then I would say less and less impact as you move up the scale to provincial and national level.

IVAN: It’s all so interesting and it affects us in so many different parts of life. I just really enjoy talking to you and talking politics. I don’t get to do it enough with someone who’s got such a similar background in growing up, and yet such a different one in our adult lives. It’s been great talking to you. And before we wrap up, I have one final question for you. Can you make a prediction for what’s going to happen in the U.S. election?

GARETH: I work from nine to five in market research, doing polls and working on opinion research. So, as a market research “scientist” I have to go with what the polls say, and I think a 10 point lead for Biden, which is sort of what the poll of polls is putting out at the moment, will mean he’ll win. I know some of the polls were wrong, although they actually weren’t that badly wrong on the national vote count in 2016, but they did get things quite badly wrong at the state level. And I understand that the delegate count means polls don’t necessarily translate into a win, but I think 10 points is really significant, and it’s going to be very difficult for Trump to turn that around. And, yeah, I have to go with what the polls say at the moment which is Biden.

IVAN: How about the House or the Senate? Any opinion there? Maybe you haven’t looked at those numbers yet.

GARETH: I haven’t looked at those closely. I see that in a number of swing states, Biden is ahead or very close or close to the gap. It’s quite possible for the democrats to win those, but I just don’t know the numbers well enough to be able to say.

IVAN: We’ll see. It’s been great talking to you, and I hope that there isn’t a worse dumpster fire in our near future than we already have. And I hope that democracy shows up and that cooler heads prevail and that we can get through this pandemic soon. Thank you for being with us. We’ll talk soon again.

GARETH: Yes, indeed. Thank you very much for having me.

IVAN: Gareth van Onselen is a South African journalist, political analyst and author. He lives in South Africa and you can find him on Twitter as @gvanonselen.

You’ve been listening to The TEN7 Podcast. Find us online at And if you have a second, do send us a message. We love hearing from you. Our email address is [email protected]. Until next time, this is Ivan Stegic. Thanks for listening.

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