Toyi-Toying on your ballot

Mar 09, 11 Toyi-Toying on your ballot

“Courts deal with bad law; voters must deal with bad politics” (Justice Skweyiya at para 308 of Merafong Demarcation Forum v President of the Republic of South Africa 2008 (5) SA 171)

There is a spectre that is sweeping through regimes that do not deliver – the spectre of being chucked out by protestors fed up with this failure to deliver. Tunisia and Egypt – and possibly (hopefully?) Libya – have shown that denying people a formal mechanism for expressing their grievances (such as through voting) is no way of guaranteeing one’s position of power.

Voting is by no means a panacea for South Africa’s ills. It does allow us, though, to change our political circumstances.

There people who were denied the vote protested ‘their’ governments out of office. South Africa is rather curious in this regard. Here people vote the government back into office, and then decide to protest about the lack of service delivery. This is a decidedly back-to-front way of engaging in politics.

More importantly, it’s harmful to the democratic system. Voting is a privilege and a right which, historically and currently, was struggled for rather than unproblematically conferred. At its core, it says that all the members of a political community should have a say in how their lives are to be governed. South Africa prides itself on attempting to create an open space in which this expression can occur: be it at the ballot box, by making submissions to parliament, or through challenging legislation or government conduct in court. Citizens are therefore encouraged to hold their government accountable on an ongoing basis. However, the ballot box – which has its quirks – remains the cornerstone of our democracy.

This is because voting is a relatively straightforward and cheap way of expressing your views. You queue for a bit, put an X in a box & voila!: you have (to some degree) stated how you feel the country and your municipality should be run. True, this is not a perfect system or necessarily effective means of communication. But the point is that on election day, all South Africans are forced to recognise that (a) they have a say in how their country is governed, & (b) all other members of the electorate also have a say.

This makes voting quite a heavy responsibility. For the system to work, we need to know that those involved in it have at least bothered to express themselves, let alone thought about what they wish to say in so doing. The apathetic and indifferent are therefore a blight on the electoral system. Moreover, so are those who vote for the incumbents and then protest about service delivery (‘voter-protesters’). The subsequent protest indicates that those members of the electorate were fed up with something. Yet given the opportunity to change their plight peacefully and relatively cheaply, they chose a far more disruptive and costly means of expressing their opinions. Instead of waiting in a queue and then putting an X in a box, on a day specifically set aside for that purpose, they took to the streets (often causing damage to property in their region and property belonging to outsiders) and risked clashes with the police during business hours on a working day.

When the Egyptians & Tunisians did this, it was laudable because they had no other avenues through which they could voice their grievances. The South African voter-protester, by contrast, first votes in favour of the status quo (i.e. reinforces it), and then has the audacity takes to the street to complain about government failures. In Egypt and Tunisia, we look up to those who took risks in order to change their political system for the better. By contrast, South Africans should shun the recalcitrant voter-protester. Fact is, the people deserve the government they have / get: in a system of regular, free and fair elections, you deserve a lack of service delivery if you don’t (or couldn’t be bothered to) vote the incompetent incumbents out of office.

Such voter-protesters need to accept responsibility for their actions. The plethora of media for expressing one’s views about the government form an inter-connected system. While alternative means of reminding the government that it is of, by and for the people are worth developing, this should not entail neglecting ‘traditional’ methods of airing one’s grievances. This neglect is exactly what incompetent incumbents thrive on, and it is something that voter-protesters encourage.

Voting is by no means a panacea for South Africa’s ills. It does allow us, though, to change our political circumstances. This happens when all the disparate members of the electorate come together and, by seeing their vote as meaningful and therefore using it thoughtfully, engage with each other on the status of the South African polity. We can ultimately accept the fractious outcomes that emerge from this process because involvement in it is so easy and yet allows us some space to be heard. Voter-protesters run roughshod over this, opting for sound and fury signifying nothing (apart from some malicious damage to property) over considerate engagement with a system, albeit imperfect, that at least tries to canvass everyone’s perspective.

The upcoming local government elections warrant careful attention from government and from civil society. Government would do well to listen to what voters say to it then. Voter-protesters, however, should be treated as ‘bloody agents’: individuals whose views are discarded when society makes decisions about its governing paradigm.

Image by Calico182