Analysis

One man equals one vote, no vote equals no democracy

Ashleigh Lopez

We are still healing as a nation, but I can't understand why people won't vote after fighting for years for that right, writes Ashleigh Lopez.

This year the registration poll has increased to 76% of the voting population. (Gallo)

It has been only 20 years since South Africans finally succeeded in ending the apartheid regime and achieving democracy … so why aren't people registering to vote? Twenty years seems rather premature for people to already be this apathetic towards a right they fought so hard to have. I believe that this issue merits further inquiry as democracy, by definition, cannot exist if it is not lead by the people.

The legislature and regime of apartheid may have gone, but it takes much more time and effort to change the mind-set of the everyday person. This year the registration poll has increased to 76% of the voting population. This may seem impressive, except for the fact that it is only 3% higher than the registration for the 2009 elections, in which only 56.57% of the voting population actually voted. What is more disturbing is that the eligible "born frees" – people born after the end of apartheid – only make up 3% of people registered to vote. The reasons for this attitude largely stem from the marginalisation of the less-privileged portion of society, which is often the sector least likely to vote in countries all around the world. However, they are not the only sectors in the country that choose not to vote and I think that it is important to investigate why this is. 

Gerita Margaret Peter is a 62-year-old domestic worker who has registered to vote in the 2014 elections. This is the second time that she has registered to vote in 20 years, with the last time being in the 1994 elections. Peter believes that South Africans choose not to vote when the situation is at its worst. She believes that people have bigger concerns, such as lack of basic needs, and do not think that they have the individual power to make a change or know how to do so. This is where the psychological scars of apartheid come into play because even if people have been disillusioned about the ANC, there is a perception that the superiority of government is not to be questioned by lowly citizens … perhaps government has purposely chosen not to educate their people on what it truly means to live in a democracy.

So what are these impoverished people meant to do on a day-to-day basis to demand change and through whom? Yes, the public sees a lot of President Jacob Zuma around election time when he is kissing babies but not anytime else and definitely not when these situations are at their worst. Peter believes that people do not even consider voting when they think the country is beyond help, but will reconsider (as she has this year), when they believe there is progress and further potential for change. Essentially though, this means that government is not held responsible for the poor conditions of the country and only makes improvements based on pressures other than elections. This is rather counterproductive when trying to develop successful democratic institutions - but how can blame be placed on the most relegated sector of society within which true democracy is not enforced?

A different perspective on this subject that came to my attention was that there is another marginalised sector of society that is typically neither poor nor uneducated. This is the sector of emigrants or rather "permanent residents", who were not born in this country but have legally lived and worked for more than five years. The problem with permanent residence is that, despite having to pay tax and to be deemed a person who will "make a meaningful contribution to broadening the economic base of South Africa", they do not have the capacity to vote unless they apply for citizenship.

Nicholas and Jill Parcell are business owners in their fifties with "permanent resident" status and have lived in South Africa for 38 years. Both attribute the unwillingness for permanent residents to apply for citizenship to a misconception relating to dual citizenship. As it stands, it is largely understood that obtaining South African citizenship revokes that of the country of your birth, which is not the case.

Nicholas believes that the government in place probably does not want permanent residents to vote, as it is unlikely that that particular sector would support them. Thus, he believes this is another case of the government choosing not to educate people in order to maintain power. Although both admit that the issue of applying for citizenship ultimately comes down to the importance that an individual places on political involvement and the effort that they are willing to go to. Jill admits that she would be more motivated to go through this process if a party was running that she believed could actually make a real positive change to the country.

However, as with both sectors of society, choosing whether or not to vote and contribute to the progress of democracy in South Africa is ultimately a choice that is made individually. Peter was, in fact, born in Botswana but has lived and worked in South Africa for the majority of her life and successfully applied for dual citizenship with ease, so allowing her to vote. 

South Africa still has a long way to go before all wounds are healed, but I battle to understand why it is so challenging to inspire political activity enough to make people register to vote after spending years fighting for the right to do so. We must face the fact that, as with all societies, sometimes people are not interested in politics and don't consider it to have a direct impact on their lives. This is especially concerning with the "born frees" who, without the direct scars of apartheid, do not seem interested with the politics of the country that they will one day lead. What we absolutely cannot accept however, is the state that many people are in where a lack of education on the topic of voting and democracy is what determines their choice not to vote.

This article is published in partnership with inkulufreeheid.org - a non-partisan, youth-led organisation that innovates engagement and ignites action on democratic, social and economic issues in South Africa with the aim of advancing the implementation of solutions to those issues.

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