Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Rule of Three

So the South African election of 2014 is over.  Apart from a few scuffles, things seemed to have gone off pretty smoothly.  We now have the great advantage (over our friends in the US, for example) that we will be left in peace by the political parties for another four years.  As far as free and fair is concerned, there seems to be no question.  South Africa continues to do well.  Even the opposition parties haven’t complained much.  That must be a good indicator for a start.

Certainly there is no danger of fraudulent voting – at least not at the individual level.  “Vote early and vote often” doesn’t apply here.  I recall that a lot of heat was generated in Minnesota in 2012 when the voters were asked in a referendum to approve the requirement of identification for voting.  It lost.  Here there is no question.  When I arrived at the voting station yesterday afternoon, I had to present my barcoded identity document – only this is acceptable.  The barcode was read by a wireless reader, and presumably the information made its way to some central computer.  So that was that, right?  Wrong. When I reached the room where the voting took place and presented myself to an electoral officer, he took the ID again, and painstakingly searched through a print out of the relevant section of the electoral role until he found my name.  He then crossed it off by hand.  Well, computers can crash, I suppose.  You might think that the nation was now safe from any thoughts of electoral fraud on my part.  Not quite. Anyway, it seems that every check is done in triplicate in South Africa these days.  The final step was to paint my thumb nail with indelible ink, and then I was allowed to vote.  I will spend the next two weeks looking as though I hit my thumb with a hammer, but at least the nation is safe from a situation where the bar code computer has its memory wiped out and the man with the ruler and pen crossed out the wrong line.

As another example of rule of three, I had to fill out a form yesterday to become a director of a company.  Naturally, it wanted my ID number.  (It’s practically impossible to do anything in South Africa without that number.)  So I filled it in.  The next question gave me pause.  It wanted my birthdate.  Let’s leave aside why the Companies Office needs to know how old a director of a company is.  (Perhaps Warren Buffett would be too old to be allowed to be a director of a company here?)  The point is that the first six digits of your ID number here is your birthdate.  Is it because they want to check if you actually know your birthday?  (Getting it wrong, I suppose, would be a fair reason to disqualify you from directing a company.)  Perhaps it’s a sneaky way of checking that you didn’t invent the ID number in the hope that the computer had crashed because of all that voting data.  Well, I correctly transcribed it onto the form.  Next it wanted to know my age…

Another interesting example is the airlines.  When you buy an airline ticket over the internet here, it eventually allows you to move to payment.  You are required to fill in the usual stuff – card number, expiry date, and the three digit security code on the back.  (It seems that if someone stole your card, it would never occur to him to note this other information.)  Now a message goes to the bank and a text message comes to your phone with a long code you have to enter before the transaction times out.  Okay, two levels.  But then – even though the flight may be taking place months later – the airline insists on actually seeing the card when you check in.  Bad news if you're paying for another person.  I would love to know what this third check is about.  Maybe just to maintain the rule of three.

Oh, yes, the election.  Well, counting continues – I guess they have to do it three times – but at this point it looks like no surprises.  The Democratic Alliance comfortably holds the important Western Cape Province and the African National Congress everything else.  Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters, who believe that nationalizing mines and banks is the route to wealth and jobs – at least for Julius – got over 5%.  Not too significant, but coming in third in their first outing gives one pause for thought.  The turnout was 75% of registered voters (yes, you have to register some months before the election: you need a bar coded identity document, and…  But you get the picture by now.)  The vote for the ANC was down a bit, but not enough to shake the grip of President Zuma on the ANC, I’m afraid.  Indeed, you can fool most of the people, most of the time.

Michael - Thursday


  1. Michael, in the place where I'm writing this comment, from past experience the only check on voting seems to be that you don't forget to remove the 50 euros from the envelope containing the names you're supposed to vote for.

  2. Your comment on Minnesota highlights the lack of a national ID in the US. In the absence of such an ID, a state issued drivers license ends up the default ID. But if you don't drive, you don't have an ID. Yes, most states do issue an alternative to a drivers license, but you have to go out of your way to get one. It's the craziest system.