Featured Illustration: Melissa Koby
Earlier this month, South Africa held local government elections (South Africa has a three-tier government system, i.e., national, provincial and municipal). In 1994 the country held its first democratic elections, ending almost fifty years of legalised racial discrimination and ushering in the African National Congress (ANC) government led by Nelson Mandela. The ANC had until then been an anti-apartheid organisation in exile. The right to vote was hard-fought for over decades of brutal and violent racial oppression by a minority white government.
For me, going to vote for the first time on 27 April 1994 was nothing short of a miracle, matched only by watching Mandela being sworn in as the first president of a democratic South Africa, three weeks later. As Peter Harris, head of the Monitoring Directorate of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), charged with delivering a free and fair election, noted, “An election of similar proportions in a developing country would normally take between 18 months and two years to arrange, but in SA we do it in our normal way, at the last minute and on a wing and a prayer…this election will require nothing less than divine intervention.” Not least of the challenges was the logistical nightmare of pulling together an election for 20 million people in a country that had only ever catered for two to three million voters, and the very real threat of derailment from the right-wing.
I was 32 years old and went to the polls carrying my nine-month-old daughter, full of optimism at the possibility of equality and justice. It was a major turning point for us as a country and the euphoria about a better life for all, as promised by the ANC’s election slogans, was tangible. I have been eligible to vote for almost the same length of time as the vote was denied to me and I am still keenly conscious of the sacrifices that were made so that I could do so. Why then did I find myself questioning the value of this right and how much difference it would ultimately make right up to the morning before I went to cast my vote? In fact, if it were not for the throw-away comment made by a young friend of my daughter’s, reminding me “to vote correctly”, it is likely that I may not have exercised that right. His parents had also fought against apartheid and I think that he was experiencing the same conflicting emotions that I was.
I was not alone in feeling the disillusionment of unfulfilled promises. The voter turnout was lower than at the last elections five years ago (although at 48% not bad by international standards). A record number of parties participated in this election and the dominant ANC party support has fallen well below the initial support it garnered in 1994.
I am tired, disappointed by corruption and poor service delivery, but find no alternative political party that I can relate to and vote for. It is a real conundrum that voters are more likely to just not vote, rather than shift alliances, especially amongst older voters. But we have to be more active and critical, to vote in sufficient numbers so that the candidate we don’t want doesn’t get elected by default. The franchise is the only way to make sure that governments can be held accountable — democracies that fail have low voter turnouts.
The right to participate in public affairs is enshrined in our country’s very liberal constitution for every person 18 and older. Free and fair elections are the cornerstone of a democracy and the right to vote, the right to choose who to vote for and to do so by secret ballot with access to information on political parties are the foundations on which a democracy is built. Voting is the most important element of the electoral system and it comes with a responsibility to do so wisely and considerately.
In his presidential inauguration speech on 10 May 1994, Nelson Mandela reminded us that the task of changing South Africa from a country in which “the majority lived with little hope, to one in which they can live and work with dignity, with a sense of self-esteem and confidence in the future, was not an easy one.” The franchise is the only voice we have.
I would recommend Peter Harris’s book, Birth: The Conspiracy to Stop the ’94 Election, be read by every South African and anyone who holds the country up as an example of reconciliation. The book is a reminder not only of the miracle that was achieved but also a reminder of the nurturing that is still needed to bring it to full fruition. “There is no easy walk to freedom,” said Mandela, who gave up 27 years of his life for the ideal of a democratic and free society.