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Folly of vote boycott

The building of democracy came at a terrible cost to the ordinary people of South Africa. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified about 190 000 victims of apartheid. The Khulumani support group for victims of apartheid estimates 300 000 people were left scarred by the system of racial discrimination. These are simply official figures or informal estimates that do not begin to reflect the daily humiliation and real pain that the majority of black South Africans alive today experienced living under apartheid.

For those who survived the apartheid system, South Africa’s hard-won democracy has real value. And, by taking part in an election — one of the most significant democratic rights — they assert that they are at last equal citizens in their country and are able to help determine the future political direction of that country.

The Mail & Guardian is committed to deepening and defending democracy in South Africa. This is perhaps why we fail to understand the eagerness of the leaders of the Landless People’s Movement (LPM) to disenfranchise the millions of poor and landless they claim to represent. This week the LPM called on South Africans not to register for — or vote in — next year’s general elections. The call makes no sense and is little more than foot-stamping by a fringe group of revolutionary wannabees.

If South Africans do not register to vote with the Independent Electoral Commission on November 8 and 9, they will not be able to cast their vote in an election that may be as distant as six months away. In effect, the LPM is committing those who follow its call to not participate, no matter what efforts may be made to address their concerns in the months ahead.

And, while the system of proportional representation gives weight to the vote of small political groups, the opinion of those who do not turn up to vote simply does not count. A vote boycott will not in any way reduce the proportion of the seats political parties receive in the National Assembly and provincial legislatures after the poll. Seat allocations are worked out on the basis of the number of votes received.

Of course, the LPM has the democratic right to call on people to stay away from the poll. We have an equivalent right to dismiss its call as folly. Fortunately, it is a fringe group with very little influence over the majority of South Africans.

That said, South Africa’s leaders should not assume that the issues of land and poverty are not overwhelming concerns for the majority of South Africans. There have been worrying indications that people’s disappointment with the slow rate at which their lives are being improved has led to apathy about the country’s democratic institutions.

Unless our leaders move quickly to improve the living standards of the poor, landless and homeless, they may have much more to contend with than merely losing ground in an election.

But universal franchise was the precious and historic achievement of the anti-apartheid struggle. In that light, we call on all South Africans to register next week, so that they can celebrate 10 years of freedom by exercising their democratic rights.

Justice for all

Assuming their complaints are valid, the Mail & Guardian deplores the allegedly inhumane conditions of the eight Boeremag trialists in Pretoria Local Prison. In a constitutional state that enshrines the right of all citizens to decent treatment at the hands of the authorities, rat-infested, filthy prison cells, inedible food and broken cell windows that expose prisoners to the elements should be a source of shame, no matter who the victims are. A possible solution would be for the South African Human Rights Commission to investigate.

Of course, it is important to establish that the complaints are not another instance of hysterical obstructionism by the Boeremag eight, who refused to appear in court this week in protest against their cell conditions. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the shrillness of their outrage in the months since their arrest arises partly from their belief that as whites, they deserve privileged treatment and are not answerable to an African National Congress government.

It is important, also, to recognise the contradictions inherent in the prisoners’ behaviour. They are accused of seeking to overthrow the constitutional democracy that guarantees them redress if they have been wronged. The millions of black South Africans they planned to force out of the country (up the N1 to Zimbabwe, if one is to believe the evidence led in the trial this week) apparently do not qualify for the humane treatment they are so stridently demanding for themselves. Given their nostalgia for South Africa’s segregated past, it is reasonable to assume they had no quarrel with the conditions of the tens of thousands of activists who were jailed, held in solitary confinement and tortured, sometimes to death, in apartheid’s prison cells.

The Jali Commission has shed harsh light on what happens behind our prison walls. In many ways, conditions have not improved and, with overcrowding, may have worsened. But a with a democratic Constitution and various institutions to enforce it — all essentially the brainchildren of the ANC — present-day South Africans at least have an avenue of redress.

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