It’s ‘V-Day’ for democratic SA – voters prepare to make their mark in watershed May 29 polls

It’s ‘V-Day’ for democratic SA – voters prepare to make their mark in watershed May 29 polls
Illustrative image. (Design: Jocelyn Adamson)

In 1994, many who cast their ballots did so in the hope of ending oppression, and more than three centuries of colonial and apartheid rule. This time round, on 29 May, more than 27 million registered voters will have the opportunity to ensure that our democracy remains alive.

On 27 April 1994, at least 9.5 million South Africans joined snaking queues – some more than a kilometre long – to cast their ballot in the first democratic election. Most of them were voting for the first time.

Armed with dreams of a brighter future and the hope that change was nigh, people from all walks of life took up the call to cast their vote as active citizens.

Recalling that day, retired Constitutional Court Justice Johann Kriegler recounted how the interim electoral body that managed the first election was nowhere ready for the historic vote.

“In 1994, we had none of the privileges we have today. We were just starting. We were unable to detect who was going to vote and where, we didn’t have a voters’ roll and we didn’t have an established organisation such as our IEC [Electoral Commission of South Africa] today.

“It was a different ball game, but it was also easy because South African people were determined to have free and fair elections so that we could enter the future,” Kriegler said.

He was the head of the interim IEC and pivotal in the establishment of the permanent body on 17 October 1996.

Kriegler, now aged 91, believes that voting in what many consider to be a watershed election is not just a duty but an obligation.

His message to South Africans is clear: “If you want the right to complain, you have a duty to vote. It is a privilege to vote, to go to the polls and exercise a mature, considered personal choice as to who will govern the country for the next 30 years.”

Have your say

In 1994, many who cast their ballots did so in the hope of ending oppression, and more than three centuries of colonial and apartheid rule. This time round, on 29 May, more than 27 million registered voters will have the opportunity to ensure that our democracy remains alive.

“People must realise that we were denied the right to vote for more than 300 years, and we must never take the right to vote for granted because it gives you direct say in government and the political leaders we choose,” said Christo van der Rheede, executive director of the FW de Klerk Foundation.

Mbali Ntuli, who left politics to venture into the civil society sphere, has been working tirelessly to get as many South Africans as possible to the polls.

In her view, the 2024 election could very well become the most important in South Africa’s democratic history.

Ntuli said that, 30 years after liberation, a country typically becomes more democratic or less democratic, and this hinges on how active its citizens are not only in voting, but also in participating between elections.

“This election is very significant because I think it’s the first time that we are all consciously aware that if we don’t get into democratic participation, then we won’t have a country that can stand any longer,” she said.

In 1994, more than 80% of registered voters turned up at the polls, but turnout has declined over the years as more and more South Africans, particularly the youth, have decided that their vote no longer counts. Many citizens are disillusioned with the voting process and tired of broken promises from politicians.

However, Lindiwe Mazibuko, a former DA member of Parliament and chief executive of Futurelect, believes South Africans’ disappointment with how the government has run the country is exactly why they need to go to the polls in large numbers.

“To young South Africans, I say your voice matters now more than ever before. While it is understandable to feel disillusioned by our country’s many challenges, disengaging only enables the status quo to persist.

“Voting is a powerful tool of accountability with which we can demand better governance and ensure that our concerns are heard. But it is only effective when we participate in our vast numbers, ensuring that the electoral outcome is a true reflection of the will of the people,” Mazibuko said.

Constitutional lawyer and writer Lwando Xaso said losing interest might be understandable, but it is also dangerous because it means despondency and apathy triumph.

“Whether you head to the polls or not, you are making a selection and I could never make a selection for apathy, no matter how slim the pickings.

“I value showing up at the polls because it means a lot to me to model democratic practice, and voting is a foundational one.

“Voting is an entry point to democracy. It’s a communal act. It’s a duty we have towards our communities, present and future. It’s a way of saying, I am here, I am a part of the nation,” Xaso said.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Elections 2024

Every vote counts

Mazibuko’s time as an MP is a shining example of what can be done when active citizens vote the right people into office. She could institute real change in the National Assembly after winning a Constitutional Court challenge in 2013, which vindicated the right of any member of Parliament to bring a motion of no confidence in the president of the republic.

“That ruling is now a legal precedent known as Mazibuko v Sisulu and Another, a name which belies the very pleasant working relationship I was fortunate to have with the Speaker of the National Assembly, Max Sisulu, during my time in office,” she said.

This is the type of change every registered voter can be a part of simply by heading to the polls and casting their ballot.

Mazibuko cautioned against abstaining from participating in the electoral process, adding that it rewards only those who participate by giving them greater influence over the outcome.

“Because South Africa uses a system of proportional representation, a small number of votes can make all the difference in winning or losing a seat in Parliament. Every vote counts, and collectively determines our leadership and the policies that will shape our society,” Mazibuko said.

Van der Rheede acknowledged that many people are disillusioned with the voting process because their vote did not bring about the change they wanted.

But, he said, instead of losing confidence in the election process, South Africans must examine whether they vote for the right people to bring about change. This means not voting for parties that undermine the validity of the Constitution.

In this election cycle, parties like the Patriotic Alliance, uMkhonto Wesizwe, the African Christian Democratic Party and the EFF have openly criticised the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Van der Rheede believes this is one of the biggest threats to South Africa’s maturing democracy.

“It’s not the Constitution’s problem that [some] people don’t have houses and we have not brought about [greater] land reform. The Constitution is clear; it’s the blueprint and tells us exactly what we must do.

“Unfortunately, we have failed in many respects of the Constitution, and now we want to come up with populist agendas that will worsen the gap between the haves and the have-nots,” Van der Rheede said.

Roelf Meyer, the former chief negotiator of the National Party in the multiparty negotiations in 1993 and a Cabinet minister in both the pre- and post-democratic governments, echoed Van der Rheede’s sentiments.

“Those parties that have the view that the Constitution must be scrapped or amended don’t have an understanding of how important it is. We are a constitutional democracy, and I would hate for us to go back to an autocracy where Parliament is supreme, as it was during apartheid,” he said.

“I warn voters to please exercise your responsibility in ensuring the Constitution stays intact. It’s 30 years after the first election, and it’s a wonderful and constitutionally enshrined opportunity to have a say in governing this beautiful country.

“I would like to see as many South Africans as possible go out to vote, if not all. My plea for South Africans is for us to go out in our numbers like we did 30 years ago.”

Meyer added that, although voting in South Africa is voluntary, as opposed to some democracies that have made it mandatory, every citizen of voting age should see it as an obligation.

Ntuli agreed. “If you are a registered voter, you must go out in your numbers and vote because South Africa desperately needs a change. We need to see the country we know South Africa can become materialise, and that is not going to happen if you don’t add your voice to the millions of people who want to have that change.”

Voice of the people

Prince Mbalati. (Photo: Supplied)

Prince Mbalati (29), Parktown, Johannesburg, Gauteng

“It is important for us as young people to vote, especially for change when it comes to things like job creation, education and other opportunities. I am going to vote for change.”

Tebogo Lebaka. (Photo: Supplied)

Tebogo Lebaka (42), unemployed, Juju Valley informal settlement, Limpopo

“I am voting to encourage political tolerance among political party supporters. My nine-year-old daughter was shot and injured during a fight between EFF and ANC supporters. That must never happen again.”

Matseke Molewa. (Photo: Supplied)

Matseke Molewa (23), tourism student, Polokwane, Limpopo

“I want to vote to fight corruption, create jobs and to increase the R350  unemployment grant.”

Chantal Bezuidenhout. (Photo: Supplied)

Chantal Bezuidenhout (57), comedian, Nelson Mandela Bay, Eastern Cape

“I really wasn’t going to vote. But I found a smaller party that I feel mirrors my values. The people of this country have been forgotten. My favourite slogan is the ANC saying: ‘Let’s do more, together.’ All they have been doing is stuffing their couches.”

Nobuhle Nyathi. (Photo: Supplied)

Nobuhle Nyathi (18), first-time voter, Rosebank, Johannesburg

“I want to see real change, not just for the country but for my community. I am tired of the government making promises and breaking them. I want my vote to hold it accountable.”

Audrey Thom. (Photo: Supplied)

Audrey Thom (82), retired, Cape Town, Western Cape

“I do not want to waste my vote on election day, but my vote must mean something for my children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. A vote that will be meaningful for them in the years to come. I realise this is a very personal question to pose to my children, but I want what will possibly be my last vote to still mean something for them. I know we have many challenges in our country, but I would like to still contribute.”

Nolulamile Lazola. (Photo: Supplied)

Nolulamile Lazola (64), Port St Johns, Eastern Cape

“I am voting because I hope things will change. Maybe we can get roads, water, toilets, schools and clinics and also housing. My first vote counted years ago. Mr Mandela was alive and our kids got social grants. After that, we voted for nothing. I don’t have any hope now. I am just voting.”

Masturah Adams. (Photo: Supplied)

Masturah Adams (70), Bo-Kaap, Cape Town, Western Cape

“You have to  vote so that you can contribute towards steering elections in a particular way, how you see fit. We need to set the stage for our children and grandchildren – and there is still more work to be done, especially in terms of economic transformation for disempowered communities.”

Lwazi Mqingwana. (Photo: Supplied)

Lwazi Mqingwana (21), first-time voter, Centurion, Gauteng

“Each vote counts. I feel like a lot of people my age don’t want to vote because they feel like their vote won’t count, but it really will make a change if we all vote. We can’t just forget about all the corruption and load shedding.” DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R35.


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