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Opinionista

We are privileged to live in a flourishing, messy, raucous democracy – don’t squander your vote

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Jon Foster-Pedley is chair of the British Chamber of Business in southern Africa. He is also dean and director of Henley Business School Africa. It is part of the University of Reading UK, originally an extension college of Oxford University, renowned for its leadership in climate science, finance, property management and executive education, and one of the most international universities in Britain. Henley is committed to transformation and holds a Level 2 B-BBEE ranking. If you would like to find out how you could unlock your future with Henley Africa, go to www.henleysa.ac.za

Relatively unusual in Africa and large swathes of the world, we are free to choose whom we want to represent us, free to associate with whom we want, and to believe and say what we want. Don’t waste it.

There’s an old French expression that tells us that if you don’t occupy yourself with politics, politics will occupy you. The English equivalent is that you get the government you vote for – which means that not voting is as much of a vote as actually making a tick on a ballot paper.

This year is the 30th anniversary of that momentous occasion when Nelson Mandela cast his vote for the first time in his life – at the age of 77. All around South Africa, millions of other citizens waited in the sun in queues that snaked around hastily designated polling stations to vote too.

But it hasn’t taken too long for the euphoria to wear off. Far too few of us are voting. Far too few can even be bothered to register to vote. It’s a tragic situation, especially in a country where the act of voting is deemed so sacred that you get a special public holiday to do just that. Not every country does that.

And yet, in the last elections, only 66% of the 26,756,649 people who registered to vote chose to cast their vote. Two-thirds is a good turnout until you look at the potential voting pool.

Just before the final deadline for voter registration this year, the number of voters was much the same as it was in 2019, this time out of a total number of 42.3 million citizens over the age of 18.

It is an ominous statistic: 63% of the total pool are registered to vote. If only 66% of those vote – or 17.6 million – then actually only 41% of South Africans who can vote are actually pitching up, which is what happened in 2019. Then there is the rise in apathy among first-time voters who are not taking the opportunity to register and get themselves onto the voter’s roll.

As someone who is an immigrant and now a permanent resident of this marvellous country, I can’t vote, but I am well aware of the history of oppression and of the pain of people I know who were denied their birthright for so many years before 1994.

I’ll leave it to them to describe why it is so important to vote this year, but for me the broader issue is what it says when we don’t vote. I can’t vote so my feeling is really one of a fear of missing out, but the more I think of it, the act of voting is an act of courage: it takes courage to take a stand and when we vote, we are taking that stand, however infinitesimal.

The apathy among voters at the moment is largely down to the fact that there is so much disillusionment about the current state of affairs, a malaise brought on by broken promises and dashed expectations. It’s perfectly understandable and it would be wrong for anyone to try to gainsay that.

But there is a greater truth. If we do nothing, nothing will change – for our country or for ourselves. In South Africa especially, relatively unusual in Africa and large swathes of the world, we are incredibly privileged to live in a democracy that is flourishing. It’s messy, it’s loud and its raucous, but in the midst of that is the truth that we are free to choose whom we want to represent us, free to associate with whom we want, to believe what we want and, with certain exclusions, free to share those thoughts in any public space we choose.

Recently the official Opposition chose to hold its manifesto rally on the lawns of the Union Buildings in Pretoria, the seat of government. This would be unthinkable in many other places anywhere else in the world. Those countries would have seen it as an affront and a deliberate provocation. It would have been seen as precisely that in this country before 1994 and met with a hail of rubber bullets and a miasma of tear gas. But in 2024, it passed without even a raised eyebrow.

When you vote, you’re voting for yourself

It doesn’t matter whom you vote for in this country, because when you vote, you’re voting for yourself, you are affirming that you exist – a right that was denied to so many for so long.

And the argument extends beyond that. If you don’t vote – even though you get the time off to do it and it doesn’t cost you anything, except a couple of hours later this year on Wednesday, 29 May – what right have you to complain about the government you eventually get?

How can you, as a business leader, speak of corporate citizenship and good governance if you aren’t prepared to take the most basic step of all – by practising your actual citizenship? What does it say about you as an individual and your own significance in this maelstrom of modern life?

The world has lived through some very tough and trying moments in modern times; from the hopelessness of those trapped in the death camps in Nazi Germany to those in Gaza; from African pogroms to war in Ukraine, and yet as Viktor Frankl famously reminds us, human beings who survive are always buoyed by a sense of tragic optimism, maintaining their sense of hope and finding meaning in life despite the apparent inescapable pain, loss and suffering.

South Africa offers us hope – and through elections a chance to affirm ourselves, confirm the current administration or change it. Most of all, it reiterates the basic fact that we matter.

Life is not easy, not for anyone, but we have our agency and I think that fundamentally, this is what voting is all about. It is the simplest act, the most basic act, but tragically that has become lost in a sense of fugue and disappointment that has not just taken root here, but across the globe. We dare not allow that to take root.

We are no more doomed by our past than we are by our present, because we have the power to define our future. We didn’t always have that, but tens of millions of South Africans never gave up that hope even in the darkest days of repression.

In fact, many of them only hoped that their children would see freedom in their lifetime even if it was to be denied their generation. Because of them, those of us entitled to vote don’t really have the luxury of shrugging our shoulders and opting out. If you can, I think you should make the effort on Wednesday, 29 May, to show up. DM

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  • Jean Racine says:

    “Relatively unusual in Africa and large swathes of the world, we are free to choose whom we want to represent us, free to associate with whom we want, and to believe and say what we want. Don’t waste it.”

    Is Foster-Pedley implying that the commenters here – having grown up in a racial dictatorship pre-94 – are smoking their socks when they proclaim post-94 SA, a “non-democracy”, simply because their favoured party is not winning elections?

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