So much political choice; so little market choice

Martin van Staden / Midjourney
Martin van Staden / Midjourney

This article was first published by BusinessDay on 2 February 2024

Given the plethora of options available to them, South Africans will be spoilt for choice this election cycle. The freedom to choose when voting is a wonderful one, so why do we have a problem with choice in every other aspect of our society?

The idea of a political landscape devoid of choice in SA is farfetched. Given the political history of this jurisdiction, since 1994 a lot of emphasis has been placed on the power to choose our governors and public representatives.

From the socialist-leaning parties to the liberty-orientated ones, South Africans have the latitude to choose their vision of society. Should there be no party that represents their vision, the bar is low for SA adults to start their own political parties and contest elections themselves.

Thanks to the majority decision in the New Nation Movement NPC and Others v President of the Republic of SA and Others constitutional case, non-political party affiliated South Africans can contest elections. This was reaffirmed last year in the One Movement SA NPC v President of the Republic of SA and Others case, which established that independent candidates only need to obtain 1,000 signatures from potential voters, instead of the 15% of signatures that was in the original legislation that was challenged in court.

South Africans understand that inasmuch as competition within the political market is necessary, the contestability of that market matters too. The cases brought by independent candidates and the organisations associated with them illustrate this need for freedom, as well as a sound understanding of it.

We have not heard any attempts to rein in the political market power of dominant parties such as the ANC or DA. There have been no calls for the authorities to “deal with the unfair advantage” governing parties or the official opposition by smaller parties. Doing so would be a ticket to political irrelevance, since one’s power in the political market is earned through voluntary choices of association made by millions of individuals.

In our political market we understand that it is okay for a party to be in a dominant position if that position was reached without coercion; through means that are contestable to anyone should they wish to change the political market and decrease the dominant position of a particular party.

In our politics we understand that we cannot force any individual to vote for any party, no matter how much we may like the policies of that party. We can persuade people, we can do the famous ground game of going door-to-door to convince people why they should vote for a particular party, but we accept that forcing someone in this process is not an option. That is democracy.

Now let’s hypothesise that a party contests the elections with a manifesto that makes clear that should it win, no elections will take place ever again. The policy position of this party is that should it come into power the right to vote will be done away with.

Should such a party have a right to do this? The obvious answer is no, even if a majority of the electorate voted for that party in full knowledge of what its manifesto contained. It would be undemocratic, not to mention unconstitutional.

Yet this inhibition of the choice of others is something we seem more than happy to accept in markets other than the political. For instance, in the labour market we are more than happy to limit people’s choice through measures such as the minimum wage, which bars individuals from accepting employment at a wage below the statutory minimum.

In energy we are held ransom by Eskom’s monopoly, with extremely limited scope for other players to compete in that market, and the sector bargaining councils have the power to enforce often onerous conditions of employment on small businesses that were not party to negotiations with worker representatives.

Imagine if someone not only told you that you couldn’t vote for the political party of your choice, but also made it impossible for you to create a new party of your choosing. You would rightfully resist tooth and nail. Yet when it comes to other markets, we are passive when the right to make our own choices is taken away.

Hopefully after the coming elections SA will reap the rewards of having such a vibrant political market and no single party will emerge with an outright majority, incentivising and encouraging collaborative solutions by our elected public representatives.

If we could transfer the sound understanding of the inherent good of expanded choice that we have in politics to other areas of society, we could solve most of the problems that afflict us as citizens of this country. If choice is good in politics, that principle should apply everywhere else too.


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The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author.




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