Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the rest.

Next month the people of South Africa vote in a general election that illustrates all of the problems with democracy. The political parties are dismal, the politicians will lie, and the people will vote for the wrong reasons. But this is how it is with real people in the real world. Churchill’s remark 70 years ago that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others still holds true. (He himself accepted his electoral defeat in 1945, just after he had won the war and saved democracy in Europe.)

In South Africa voting is mainly tribal and has little to do with the policies of the parties. This is no different from other countries where tribes are clearly distinguishable. “Tribe” and “nation” are one and the same; Europe is just as tribal as Africa. Race is simply one way of identifying tribe.

In the election on 8 May, “Africans” will vote for the ANC and the EFF. Most of the people now protesting violently against the ANC for failing to provide decent services will vote ANC again. “White” people will vote for the DA. The Western Cape, alone among provinces, will vote for the DA because the biggest racial group there are the “Coloureds”, who dislike “Africans” more than they dislike “whites”. We all know this, although we are not allowed to say so. (“Coloureds” is an apartheid term for people of indigenous and mixed descent. “Africans” is a technically meaningless term which actually refers to “Bantu”, a term which is scientific.)

In Britain, ethnic tribes have blurred together. Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Normans are indistinguishable now. But in one part of Britain tribalism is still strong. This is Northern Ireland, where the tribes are called “Protestant” and “Catholic”, and people vote accordingly. Even in mainland Britain, though, voting is seldom decided by the policies of the parties, and of course nobody reads the party manifestos, which are always long, vacuous and boring.

How best to govern according to the will of the people? In ten thousand years, nobody has been able to answer this question. Democracy in the West uses a popular vote to select representatives, who then decide policy. Some “intellectuals” say there should be direct democracy where “the people”, especially working-class people, decide policy through referenda. However, what if you ask these intellectuals for a referendum on the death penalty or same sex marriage or African immigration? Then these intellectuals will be less inclined for ordinary people to make the decision. They will want to decide for them.

Cromwell in England in the 17th Century had the same problem. He overthrew the king and sought some means of democratic government. Radicals suggested one-man-one-vote. He was horrified – for two reasons. First, it was too revolutionary. Second, it was too reactionary, since he knew that if ordinary people could decide they would bring back the monarchy.

The three main parties in South Africa are woeful. The ANC, incompetent and corrupt, has failed over 25 years to provide productive government, and there is no reason to believe it will do better now. The DA has lost its liberal tradition and is now just ANC-Lite, offering a clean and efficient version of the ANC, but with the same awful policies, including affirmative action and BEE. The EFF is a fascist party, probably even more corrupt than the ANC. Its leaders live in extravagant bourgeois opulence, but pretend to represent the working classes. They promise to nationalise all land so that ordinary people will only be able to rent from the state, like serfs in feudal times.

Our proportional voting system has the huge advantage of being mathematically fair: each party gets seats in exact proportion to its vote. But it has the disadvantage that voters don’t get representatives and, worse, it gives too much power to the party bosses.

Given all these problems, surely the election on 8 May is a waste of time and we should all stay at home? Not at all. The election is vital and good, and it is your duty to vote. Voting against a party you dislike is more important than voting for one you like and, my goodness, there are parties to dislike! Decide which you hate most and vote against it. You might be rewarded in the next parliament by some politician shouting your hostile views across the chamber.

Our proportional system gives the wonderful chance for very small parties to be represented in parliament, which seldom happens in Britain. There might actually be a small party with policies you like. So vote for it and maybe it’ll get a voice in parliament.

Above all, elections make the ruling party nervous. The ANC is very worried about losing support on the 8th. This is the best reason of all for going out to vote.


  1. A political map of modern Europe is a tribal map, where countries are named after ancient tribes: Germani, Francs, Belgii, Britanis, Itali, Scots and so on. “Nation” and “tribe” are completely exchangeable.
  2. I’ve spent a weekend in Belfast. It is impossible for an outsider to see the difference between a Protestant and a Catholic. They themselves cannot explain their religious differences. Neither side knows what it stands for except some vague hostility/love towards the Pope or carefully nurtured memories of Cromwell and King Billy. Hatred alone completely explains their tribalism. Without this delicious hatred, they’d be exactly the same, living in boring acceptance of each other.
  3. I heard a DA spokesman admitting that the DA had the same policies as the ANC but was more honest and efficient (which is true).
  4. In Britain a party can win the majority of the votes and lose the majority of the seats, and therefore power. Worse, a party with a huge fraction of votes nationwide can end up with no seats at all, whereas another party with far fewer votes, but with all of the votes in a small area can get a lot of seats. In Britain UKIP has been the big loser and the DUP the big winner in this unfair system. SA is just much better in this regard. But there are disadvantages of our systems, as I have mentioned.

Andrew Kenny is a writer, engineer and classical liberal

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