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.”
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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.