Defend Truth


Young, gifted and black – but will I vote in 2024?


Nonkululeko Mntambo is the Communications Officer at Defend our Democracy. She writes in her personal capacity.

As a bearer of the ever-coveted youth vote, it occurs to me that I have suddenly, yet predictably become ‘the prize’. Being part of a demographic making up about 35% of the country does give one a MaStandi sense of belonging, and indeed power, on the eve of a watershed election year.

But now, after the dance of political parties and the song of their youth detachments, why is voting still an “if” for me?

To begin with, what does it mean to vote? 

It has been said that it is to exercise a hard-won freedom. In 2019, I  remember fighting charges of apathy, ungratefulness and ignorance when young people avoided the polls in droves. Older people said, “Young people don’t know how much we sacrificed to be able to vote today”, with a growing sense of resentment and disgust with every repetition. 

It was hard to accept then and now that “Pamberi ne Hondo! Pamberi ne Chimurenga” was sung to the dream of an inked left thumb and I argued just as much.

With hindsight and a greater understanding of the straw-manning on both sides, however poetic my own might have been, I have come to understand what the fundamental issue being argued between the generations was. Does voting matter?

For all these new faces and recycled conversations, however, it is still difficult to spot the material changes that have come about for ordinary South Africans.

The 2019 elections became a precursor to every coalition conversation we are having today. Seeing the ANC go under 60% for the first time since the dawn of democracy while the FF Plus achieved its greatest victory, becoming the fifth-largest party in Parliament, made a hamster wheel of the news cycle. Often though, on either end of our political spectrum, the fundamental reasoning behind the election results was not around who people voted for but who voted in the first place.

The local government elections in 2021 saw the rise of new formations such as ActionSA and a more than 10% decline in the votes received by the incumbent and official opposition. The same conversations followed, and the same summary was made. Though showing a degree of openness to new formations, they are more often than not breakaways from older ones. For the most part, South Africans show their disapproval of their chosen political parties not by voting differently but by not voting at all, leaving the leadership of the country up to an adamant few.

For all these new faces and recycled conversations, however, it is still difficult to spot the material changes that have come about for ordinary South Africans. If anything, every year has been markedly worse. 

In the first quarter of 2022, the unemployment rate was 63.9% for those aged 15 to 24 and 42.1% for those aged 25 to 34, while the official national rate is now 34.5%. The total number of contact crimes increased by 11.6% from Q3 2021 to Q3 2022. Fuel prices keep rising and rising. The energy crisis had worsened enough for it to be declared a national disaster. Food prices continue to soar while wages remain stagnant. Greylisting has become a most unfortunate addition to our national vocabulary. 

The list is as endless as coalition formations. And this is the quandary of South Africa’s youth: What am I voting for, really?

For this we must ask: Why did we want the vote in the first place? 

Not an end in itself

When asked, in 1961, about the number of educated Africans in South Africa in relation to “the Africans’” desire to vote, Nelson Mandela would answer: 

“The question of education has nothing to do with the question of the vote. On numerous occasions, it has been proven in history that people can enjoy the vote even if they have no education. Of course, we desire education, and we think it is a good thing. But you don’t have to have education in order to know that you want certain fundamental rights, you have got aspiration, you have got claims. It has nothing to do with education whatsoever.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Defend Our Democracy civil society movement launches in South Africa encouraging active citizenry

The vote, even when prioritised, was not an end in itself. Most glaringly, in the grips of a regime imposing minority rule, the vote was not highlighted as a means by which the people simply choose their leaders. The vote was a tool of the people used to express their aspirations and take hold of their rights. Simply put, who was on the ballot could never outweigh what was on the ballot.

This is primarily why, regardless of who was on the ballot, there were also conditions under which we refused to vote. A fundamental part of the work of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in acting to dismantle apartheid was the opposition of the Tricameral Parliament. This was, in the last decade of apartheid, the closest thing Black people had to a voice in the government. 

Steve Biko said in 1977: “You cannot, in pursuing the interest of Black people, operate from a platform which is meant for the oppression of Black people.” 

Although he said this regarding Bantustan leaders, it is easy to see how the logic would transfer.

The vote, then, acts to ratify. It not only ratifies the state as legitimate but also ratifies oneself as a vested citizen of the state. 

Now, I hold that the vote is not an end in itself but the extended arm of the people to create a vessel for their power. I also hold that to vote is indeed to ratify the state and declare myself a part of it. It must then follow that the question of “if” I will vote is, in truth, to ask if, in 2023, amandla, awethu na? Ilizwe, elethu na?

If I say yes, I must concede that the government, both in 1994 and 2024, is not composed of saviours, philosopher kings and sacred things. It is always a vessel of the power of the people held by those who are chosen to serve them.

If I say yes, I must accept that it is my problem that Enoch Sontonga’s invitation, “Woza Moya”, has been rescinded as we are instead occupied by the ghost of apartheid made manifest in us continuing to be the most unequal country in the world. 

Finally, on the eve of another election year and the sobering that comes from a clock that always strikes unprecedented, there is one more task before me. If I say yes, I must accept that this freedom, like fire, is not captured but wielded. Every time our conditions are left the same or worse by an election, I must ask myself if I have formed part of a people who were good stewards of the flame. As a lit candle is to an ashen house, so is a democracy that is only tended to every five years. 

So, will I vote? I will say: amandla awethu; Ilizwe, elethu. DM

Nonkululeko Mntambo is the Communications Officer at Defend our Democracy. She writes in her personal capacity.


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  • virginia crawford says:

    Grow up! It’s not some metaphysical conundrum but a civic duty. By not voting you multiply the value of those who do vote. Autocrats and the corrupt love people who don’t vote because it increases their legitimacy: we got 70% of the vote – but only 30% bothered to vote.

  • David Walker says:

    It is not the act of voting that brings about change, it is who you vote for. The majority voting for the same party for the last thirty years has brought about the same dismal outcomes for the country time and again.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    Interesting article but I’m afraid philosophising will not put food on the table. It will not provide housing; nor will it educate. Neither will it provide clean water, power or safety and trust for our peoples.

    So, if you like a car, roads, TV, clean water, power, an education for your family at all you need to focus your magnifying glass on preserving these things.

    You will notice I’m sure that not one of the above items includes race, and neither should you – it is an irrelevant sideshow used by useless politicians to gain votes.

    There is only one practical solution to this country’s problems:

    Vote out the ANC and replace it with a party using only the following as measurement criteria:
    1. Accountability; and
    2. Service delivery; and
    3. Sufficient size to run the country

    Given the above, there is only one player. Do yourself and everyone you love a very big favour and vote for it.

    • ms.calsarel says:

      I disagree. I think philosophizing is exactly what is needed. The reality is that most of us don’t take the time to think about what our vote means. Many of us only think about voting when we remember that we didn’t register or when it’s voting day and we see an opportunity of an extra public holiday. This peice is a rallying call to actually sit and think about what one’s vote means. To consider what impact it has, to even consider whether choosing to not vote is a legitimate exercise of the right. It is not as black and white as it was in 1994. We do need to think deeply about these questions and while not all of us have the luxury to philosophize, those that do, absolutely should.

      • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

        @mscalsarel – I say that no South African has the luxury to philosophize at this point in our country’s history. We will all go down in the same ship if the practicalities in this country aren’t the absolute focus, and right now.

      • Oliver Laubenheimer says:

        there has already been too much philosophizing. voter turnout has been abysmal, and those (the majority of) who did vote pretty much invited more of the same. “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results” perhaps it is time to shed the cloak of historical entitlement and the people who have been elected to wear it, look to the future, and apply the criteria mentioned by Ricky. In politics, nothing is ever ideal, but we have taken 30 years to philosophize that we are being taken for a ride…. Alternatives may not be ideal, but the current environment of being fleeced can surely not be embraced because at least the fleecing is being actioned by people belonging to what most consider to be a more deserving cultural background. ironically the poor continue to suffer the most. Vote first and vote smart, then, by all means, philosophy.

  • Andrew Blaine says:

    By voting you do become part of society. But abstaining does not exempt you from that society, or endow you with the ability to change.
    Voting is an expression of your desires and needs. If your representatives are incapable of delivering your expectations then, like any other employee, they must be replaced. This you do by voting.
    Not voting is like being the ostrich which hides its head in the sand to avoid discovery, a ludicrous and self defeating step!
    If you dont vote then dont complain about the situation in which you live!

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    The simple reality in this article is this:
    Enoch Sontonga’s winds of change have been stifled by [yes, believe it] the stifling ghost of apartheid, but despite the fact that every year everything gets worse as Ms Mntambo points out, the masses in South Africa console themselves on the eve of the 2024 elections saying it’s our country, our spirit – we can eff it up and still blame apartheid and you know what, actually we’ll take any form of government as long as it isn’t white men.
    That’s the message of hope in this broken country.

  • Fran V says:

    If you don’t vote it in actuality just means less people choosing who to run the country. In the last election the winners were elected in by 30% of the population. But if everyone voted then we could have an true reflection of what the country feels about the leadership and maybe, just maybe we’d have some real change?

    Abstaining is in effect a “vote” for whomever wins. Wouldn’t you rather choose? Yes, maybe the options aren’t great, but look for accountability, prioritized service delivery and track record of good management.

  • Diana Bidwell says:

    In my experience, not voting is actually giving power to those who you don’t really want in power. Voting is perhaps the only way that we can have a say in what happens to our country and its people.

  • Ivan van Heerden says:

    It is mind shattering that entitled people still think that not voting is an option. Check your privilege sister, 2024 is the last hope this country has of not turning into yet another failed African state.

    Not voting is not an option!!!!!

    • ms.calsarel says:

      It’s glaring that the lack of knowledge of basic struggle slogans has led to this level of misinterpretation. It’s rather disappointing, if not a little embarrassing.

      It’s not a question of entitlement Ivan, this is the true definition of taking one’s civic duty seriously. A call to seriously think about one’s vote!

  • Zinhle Nhlangothi says:

    I’m not sure if everyone read the article till the end but the writer clearly states that voting is our responsibility. The final paragraph speaks of the national imperative to tend to this democracy and not just every five years and when answering the question “will I vote?” she answers “power to the people and this nation is ours” (translated) which speaks to the sentiments expressed in the final paragraph which is that it is our responsibility to continuously tend to this democracy ergo a civil duty to vote :\

    As a post-democracy youth, I resonate with these sentiments. There are many reasons to not want to vote but at the end of the day “ilizwe elethu” therefore if we don’t participate in our democracy then we are abandoning our nation – the same nation we want to prosper in.

    • Ruby Delahunt says:

      Thank you! I fear quite a few people have not grasped what this article is actually saying – that there is understandable reason as to why young people are apathetic about voting, but that in truth it is imperative that we do. Seems our post-democracy youth reading skills are quite advanced, no?

    • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

      Yes Zinhle, and thank you for your comment.

      There are many reasons I don’t want to vote either, one being that I do not believe that the 1 vote shotgun approach to picking the appropriate party to solve every problem has validity. Another being that society is so complex I have neither the knowledge nor intellectual capacity to actually vote in a real meaningful way – there is just so much I don’t know or understand, and the 3rd primary reason being that I do not have the ability to filter truth from fiction in this deluge of information we are all drowning in.

      However, in South Africa today the truth is that our votes are the only thing that can save this country from descending into chaos, a destination to which it is already well on its way.

      So my plea to all South Africans is to forget individuals, forget race, and focus on the only base level criteria relevant when selecting a party to vote for:

      1. Accountability; and
      2. Service delivery; and
      3. Sufficient size to run the country

      Then vote.

  • rmrobinson says:

    I am puzzled by the lack of reflection, in this article, on the causes and consequences of the failure of African rule in South Africa. Surely, the point of getting rid of apartheid was that things should improve for the majority. While, thankfully, the race based laws are gone (albeit to be replaced by Black on the rest race based laws), things have mostly not improved, hope has been destroyed, that which were in existence at the time of change (Escom, SAA, Denel, etc etc) have also been destroyed, not by apartheid, but by the Africans in charge, who have also done nothing to improve education and are even condemning their people to diseases such as cholera, to say nothing of the awful state of state run hospitals. Surely it is time to stop hiding behind the excuse of apartheid and to ask some hard questions about the reasons and solutions for this African failure? After all, in a country of about 60 million people, roughly 10 million are not of African descent. The 50 million cannot keep using the minority as a scapegoat for the state of affairs they find themselves in. How otherwise are they to improve their situation if they do not start owning up and asking some hard questions of themselves?

    • D'Esprit Dan says:

      Derek Hanekom, Alec Erwin, Mac Maharaj, Jay Naidoo, Valli Moosa, Trevor Manuel, Joe Slovo, Kader Asmal, Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, Essop Pahad, Dullah Omar, Ronnie Kasrils, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, Barbara Hogan, Enver Surty, Geoff Doidge, Aziz Pahad, Susan van der Merwe, Dirk du Toit, Radhakrishna Padayachie, Loretta Jacobus, Johnny de Lange, Rob Davies, Jean Swanson-Jacobs, Gert Oosthuizen, Tina Joemat-Peterson, Yunus Carrim, Ebrahim Patel, Ben Martins, Pravin Gordhan, Barbara Hogan, Connie September, David van Rooyen, Lynn Brown, Barbara Creecy and Patricia de Lille, are, or have been, Ministers and Deputy Ministers since 1994 (I left out those in the first cabinet of national unity to spare your further blushes), who would not be considered ‘African’ using your definition. There may be others that I didn’t apply the pencil test to who would have ‘passed’, but I’m sure others will be able to fill those in.

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    I am not impressed with your navel gazing. If you are a thinking person you know the ANC has sold and stole South Africa down the river. Not only selfish crooks but arrogant uncaring incompetents. You only need to look at the list of municipalities with clean audits against the ones who are dIsfinctional and bled dry to see 95% are DA run. So don’tvote ANC,don’t not vote, don’t hedge your bets by voting for a small party, make the rational on the evidence choice and vote DA.

  • Kim Loedolf says:

    Having read the article to the END. It is clear that the author is NOT encouraging people to refrain from voting, but rather to think about their vote carefully. Is your vote well- aligned with your own sense of morality and does the actions of the majority party resonate with what you consider to be binding on your own conscience? The article incites riveting and neccesary conversations especially in the political climate we find ourselves in. This generation of youth, with exceptions ofcourse, often do not take the time to properly investigate the implications of their vote. The article asks all of us to consider the ratio between ALL party- promises and delivery. Its a call to action, to think deeply about the factors that cause us to vote for a party as opposed to others. I applaud the author for starting a conversation that, clearly, many are not ready to have. The old saying is still true: evil flourishes because good people do nothing. We should be past the question of, to vote or not to vote. To vote is both a right and a responsibility. And the consequences of taking that responsibility lightly is clearly seen. South Africans must do better, vote better to live better.

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