You didn’t vote? The lack of your X could make SA an ex-democracy


You didn’t vote? The lack of your X could make SA an ex-democracy

Voting should have been made compulsory in 1994 because voter apathy could be devastating for SA

Executive editor: opinions and analysis
You do if you don't vote.
YES You do if you don't vote.
Image: Alon Skuy

A roving SABC reporter doing a live crossing from an informal settlement in Mamelodi, Tshwane, stops two young men pushing a trolley containing what looks like scraps for sale.

“Did you vote yesterday?” she asks the bespectacled one in a black beanie.

“No, I didn’t,” he responds.

“I don’t see the importance of voting. Why must I choose a person that doesn’t choose me? They have been making promises since 1994; they are still making promises. They haven’t done anything for us; we make a living out of this trolley here. You choose them, they stay in posh places, eat expensive food, ride luxury cars that just pass you by in the streets. Should I choose him so he can live a lavish lifestyle while I live like this? I choose my trolley.”

Voter turnout was miserable for Monday’s local government elections; in some areas as low as 23%. A large swathe of South Africans, disgruntled with the government and political parties, opted for a stayaway in protest. They just enjoyed an extra public holiday.

I think the first mistake was not making voting compulsory when SA became a democracy. We wrongly assumed that since black people were denied the franchise, they would value the importance of casting a ballot. There was a lot of enthusiasm in 1994 and maybe one or two subsequent elections, but since then voter apathy has set in at levels which are very dangerous for democracy. People who have lost the will to participate in elections are likely to find other outlets to vent out their frustrations. We all saw the devastating consequences of this in July.

I want to believe that it’s not too late to seek a constitutional change mandating compulsory voting. But how would you enforce this? Would we be able to link, for example, state benefits to the vote? That is, you run the risk of losing the child support grant — and, if it ever gets introduced, the basic income grant — if you do not vote? I doubt this would pass constitutional muster.

The answer lies in increased voter education. People must be taught that not exercising their right to vote hurts them because a councillor will be elected and a council  that will have a major impact on their daily lives formed, whether they have voted or not. They will spend the next five years being governed by people they did not choose, people they do not like.

They will spend the next five years being governed by people they did not choose, people they do not like.

Boycotting the vote because of disgruntlement with a councillor/municipality is extremely shortsighted. It must be explained to them that their vote is their ticket to change — the power to punish those who let them down by not returning them to office. 

Interestingly though, voter apathy seems to be hurting the ANC more than the opposition, especially in the metros.

At the time of writing this column, the DA was ahead in Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay. Ekurhuleni is tight and no party will win Johannesburg outright. Coalitions will be required to run all the major metros and how these pairings eventually shape up will be the story of these elections.

EThekwini seems a safe bet for the ANC, while the DA is continuing its dominance in Cape Town. The ANC is in cruise mode in smaller cities — East London, Mbombela and Polokwane. It is also holding on to much of its rural constituency, except in Zululand, where the IFP has cleaned up.

The ANC is firmly becoming a party of rural areas and secondary towns. Gauteng urbanites are gatvol and voting for change. 

It’s a pity opposition parties are failing to capitalise more on the ANC’s failings. People are choosing to stay at home rather than vote for them in larger numbers. However, we are still witnessing some surprises.

If the DA continues this trajectory, it will be the biggest party in Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay, quite a feat if you consider how before the 2016 local government elections you wouldn’t dream of dislodging the ANC in these cities. Herman Mashaba’s Action SA is eating ANC, EFF and DA lunch in Tshwane and Johannesburg, but has not performed as well as some had predicted.

The EFF is showing modest growth and will definitely be kingmaker in Ekurhuleni, perhaps even in Johannesburg, once more township wards declare.

I have loads of sympathy for those young men in Mamelodi. But by not voting they are allowing others to condemn them to a future that won’t progress them beyond a trolley filled with scrap metal.