Quote of the week

Universal adult suffrage on a common voters roll is one of the foundational values of our entire constitutional order. The achievement of the franchise has historically been important both for the acquisition of the rights of full and effective citizenship by all South Africans regardless of race, and for the accomplishment of an all-embracing nationhood. The universality of the franchise is important not only for nationhood and democracy. The vote of each and every citizen is a badge of dignity and of personhood. Quite literally, it says that everybody counts. In a country of great disparities of wealth and power it declares that whoever we are, whether rich or poor, exalted or disgraced, we all belong to the same democratic South African nation; that our destinies are intertwined in a single interactive polity.

Justice Albie Sachs
August and Another v Electoral Commission and Others (CCT8/99) [1999] ZACC 3
1 September 2023

Let’s pray that voting in SA’s 2024 elections doesn’t feel like the triumph of hope over experience

Democracy is about much more than voting in an election every few years. Democracy is about holding accountable those who wield power. It is about making trouble, asking questions, demanding answers, taking part. It requires work and commitment, and the capacity to deal with endless disappointment.

Next year in May or June, I will dutifully go to my polling station on election day to cast my vote in the national and provincial elections. As was the case in the past few local government, provincial and national elections, I will probably only decide who to vote for at the last minute. I might again split my vote for strategic or other reasons.

Although I do hope this time will be different, my decision may well again be a reluctant one, largely based on the vague hope that I am casting my vote for a candidate or party that might not be as bad as the other candidates and parties on the ballot.

I will probably return home and read a book or binge-watch a bad Netflix series with a nagging feeling that my vote will make no difference to how my province or my country will be governed for the next five years. I will do so fully aware that I have far less reason to feel that my voice does not matter than most citizens do.

When I vote next year, I will probably be part of the minority of eligible voters – which includes the more than 13 million eligible voters who are not registered to vote – to do so (roughly 47% of eligible voters cast their ballots in the 2019 election).

One often hears people say that these non-voters only have themselves to blame for the incompetent, corrupt or otherwise compromised government they are saddled with and that such non-voters have no right to complain.

I am not sure this is correct, and that a decision to vote is necessarily more rational than a decision not to vote. (Voting can feel like the triumph of hope over experience.) There are, in fact, many valid reasons for South African citizens to believe that their vote will not matter much because it will not change anything, or will not change anything important to them.

That this is so, is troubling, not least because the legitimacy of a democratic system of government hinges on the perceived ability of that system to produce a responsive and accountable government capable of (and willing to) address the needs of voters and the communities they live in, in a meaningful way.

The problem is not unique to South Africa, although it arguably manifests here in unique ways. Scholars often point to the election of Donald Trump in the United States, Narendra Modi in India and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, as well as the rise in the popularity of far-right “populist” parties in parts of Europe, as evidence for the contention that democracy is in crisis across the world.

This view reflects rising voter disaffection with traditional politics and political parties and a growing belief among citizens that the system is rigged in favour of “elites” and thus not capable (or no longer capable) of ensuring the kind of economic prosperity they have come to expect for themselves and those who look like them and share their values.

The argument here seems to be that many disaffected voters in such countries either turn away from politics altogether or throw their weight behind one or other populist charlatan like Trump, Bolsonaro or Modi who promise to change everything.

Such voters, so the argument goes, often develop a blind, cult-like, devotion to the leader because they are seduced by the fantasy that all their troubles will go away once the leader has “dealt” with some or other “enemy” (immigrants, black people, white people, Muslims, scientists, the media, judges) who they had come to believe is the cause of all their misery.

In one version of this story, these voters come to believe that the democratic system itself needs to be dismantled on the grounds that it is fundamentally “rigged” to serve the interests of a small group of people, or because it no longer serves the interests of those who really matter – themselves.

In this view, governments ignore the needs of voters because they merely implement decisions, often taken in secret, by powerful people outside government who control the media, the professions, the judiciary, and ultimately the politicians. (In a more extreme version of this story, the “rigging” is part of a vast but secretive conspiracy by dark forces who are out to destroy the world as we know it, one vaccine, one lockdown, one World Bank loan, one woke book at a time.)

But here is the catch. There is some evidence that it is not only populist voters who may be losing faith in the democratic system of government, and in the power of their vote to change things for the better.

This is very much the case in South Africa where more than 50% of eligible voters will not vote in South Africa’s national and provincial elections next year, despite (or maybe partly because of) the shocking state of governance in most parts of the country, and despite the possibility that the ANC could lose its overall majority in the National Assembly and in one or two provincial legislatures.

One can only hope that disaffected voters will have a change of heart and will flock to the polls next year to punish the governing party for its woeful governance record and for its failure to meet even the most basic needs of those whose (largely racialised) lack of access to resources make them most dependent on government.

But I am not optimistic that this will happen, and not only because the national leaders of the two largest opposition parties appear to do everything they can to convince the overwhelming majority of voters not to vote for their party.

I would have been more optimistic had there been no factual basis for some of the populist beliefs and attitudes described (or caricatured) above, and had there been no reason to worry that the populists might have a point when they claim that democratic systems of government do not always deliver what they promise to deliver – an open, accountable, responsive and effective government that works for the benefit of all, not the few.

While the scapegoating of vulnerable groups (in both the United States and South Africa, black immigrants seem to be the preferred target) is despicable as well as irrational, it is not so strange that voters would conclude that the system was designed for, and now disproportionately benefits, social, economic and political elites.

When I refer to elites in the South African context, I have in mind, among others, politicians, business owners, members of the professions, middle-class suburbanites with Twitter accounts, journalists, academics, traditional leaders, teachers, civil servants, white “civil rights” organisations, NGOs and anyone else with the funds to litigate before the courts.

As in many other democracies, the legitimacy of the democratic system is also threatened by the perceived corrupting influence of money on the system – through both illegal and legal means.

In South Africa, larger political parties are beholden to large donors who, it can be assumed, will seldom continue funding a party if the party acts against the interests of the donor. Endemic corruption and nepotism arguably pose an even bigger threat to the legitimacy of the system.

A voter who notices that their neighbour’s underqualified son got a well-paying job through ANC connections, or that the police are not investigating the assault on her daughter because the perpetrator is a politically connected businessman, would be hard-pressed to trust the system, more so if they have seen no evidence that ousting the ANC from government would end corruption.

Moreover, I would argue that white – and class – supremacy still permeates our society. It does not instil confidence in the system when the government and most of the media treat the death of one or two middle-class white children in a building collapse as a national crisis, but metaphorically shrug their shoulders when 30 poor and/or black people are killed in a gas explosion or a fire. (If the dead black people are foreign nationals, populist voters are likely to blame them for their own deaths.)

There is also evidence that the most effective (legal) way to hold politicians accountable is to turn to the courts and the Constitution, an option only available to the wealthy or to those lucky enough to have secured the support of an NGO (thank goodness for NGOs).

Apart from becoming a politician, or making pots of money to bribe those politicians with, seemingly the most effective other option – violent protest – is unlawful and potentially lethal (police officers seem to become trigger-happy when confronted by poor black protesters).

And yet, despite all its problems, I think it would be a terrible mistake to give up on democracy.

I have long accepted that most voters are more likely than not to make choices that go against their self-interest, or that I find otherwise baffling. But what do I know, in any case?

What I do know is that the voting aspect of democracy matters as it does matter who governs (even if it does not always matter nearly as much as one would hope it would), and because really bad people do get voted out of office if the election process is relatively free and fair (Trump and Bolsonaro are two recent examples of this).

Second, it is important to remember that democracy is about much more than voting in an election every few years. Having a say, through your vote, in who leads the government, is an important but limited part of any democracy.

Democracy is about having a say (or at least the possibility of having a say) in important issues that impact you and those around you, whether the immediate decision is taken by an elected representative in government or somebody else. It is about using all the (legal) mechanisms at one’s disposal (to the extent resources permit) to hold those who wield power accountable.

It is about making trouble, asking questions, demanding answers, taking part. (Trying to convince people not to vote would, I guess, also be a form of “taking part”.)

It requires work and commitment and the capacity to deal with endless disappointment.

Active citizenship is a term often invoked as an empty Viva-Mandela Rainbow-Nation cliché, but in my view, democracy is more likely to serve the interest of all citizens (or less likely to serve only the interest of selected elites) if citizens get involved in the life of their community and of the nation more broadly.

Of course, being an active citizen can take myriad forms – including voting in national, provincial and local government elections.

I have voted in every election since 1994, despite often worrying that my vote might not make any difference, reckoning that it is easy to do so and that it is not likely to make things worse. (It also helps to remind myself that voting is just one way to get involved and that my privilege makes it possible for me to be an active citizen in numerous other ways too.)

But, if I am honest, I also vote out of stubbornness.

To me, not voting would feel like a defeat, like an acceptance that the only thing that truly matters in our society is wealth, social status and access to the use of force.

I may be deluding myself, but I am not yet ready to accept this.

2015 Constitutionally Speaking | website created by Idea in a Forest