When Nelson Mandela came out of jail, the sun shone once more for all people in South Africa for the first time in 350 years. In 1994 South Africa was given a unique second chance. After decades of legalised racism, a new Constitution was enshrined that protects everyone equally. It is the best Constitution in the world.
In 1999 the second democratic election voted the African National Congress into another term of office with Thabo Mbeki as President. What an excitement that unleashed in many who watched the energetic deputy president take over the bridge and steer the new liner through the rocks of potential disaster, while the old admiral pacified the waves!
What a chill is felt in many patriotic hearts at the thought of another four years with Comrade Undertaker at the helm? Sometime during the first four months of 2004, the third election will take place. It will be the most important election in the history of our country.
That first election was a surprise party and we celebrated the fact that we whites were not put against a wall and shot. Returned exiles realised that their dollars and pounds wouldn’t have to be spent on buying luxury German cars. They came with the new jobs!
The second election was a cautious return to professional politics after the hangover of the Rainbow Djol made way for the throbbing headaches of structure and organisation.
The third election can go two ways. It can be a reaffirmation of the democratic ideals enshrined in the Constitution. Or it can lead to South Africa becoming another Zimbabwe.
After nine years, politicians have realised what restrictions have been placed on their ambitions by the Constitution. They don’t like it, even though some of them wrote it. A two-thirds majority in Parliament can change that Constitution. No rule of law has prevented the president of Zimbabwe from cutting the social foot to fit his political shoe.
Optimism and hope in South Africa waver under the onslaught of violence and crime, corruption and arrogance. And yet we are not another Congo, or a variation of the Middle East. We are still on track, with a young democracy that is gaining in confidence, in spite of the diversions of unrealistic demands and designer fears.
That’s what happens when all citizens have the vote. The system is touched by human hands. Democracy is not perfect, but surely it is the only way through the minefield of ethnic and racial demands. Everyone has a chance to make a cross and bear that cross. Until there is apathy.
When the people lose interest in their power, it is easier for other powers to take their place. But what if that interest has waned to a level of paralysis? If those who can vote, don’t bother to vote? If those who should vote, do not register and therefore cannot vote?
Voter education is the catchword. Focusing attention on the need to exercise a sacred duty. After nine years, too many of us have forgotten how many South Africans died so that we could vote. It has been so easy to forget that a decade ago, when the world expected a bloodbath, all they got was Madiba Magic.
Nelson Mandela is no longer centre stage. The new-era politicians have personal agendas that look beyond our borders and the needs of our country. We must all be motivated to make a contribution to a democratic future for all. We must all vote in 2004 and so earn the patriotic right to complain!
There are many reasons to forget the next election in our New Year’s resolutions. Citizens are cynical because promises of 1994 have still to become reality. We have forgotten how much good has happened in the lives of so many: fresh water, electricity, civil freedoms, houses and jobs. And Winnie is not yet president.
Many South Africans don’t realise that they have to vote every four years. They must be reminded why and encouraged to do so. The Aids pandemic has removed a large percentage of the voters’ role of 1999 into an early grave. But in South Africa, people don’t die of Aids. They just disappear. Must the voters’ role be resubscribed?
If people are ill with Aids on Election Day, can they vote at home? No. They will just abstain. Many ANC supporters, especially women, have lost their children and loved ones to Aids because of carelessness from government structures that have not come to their assistance. These people will not vote against the ANC. They will just not vote.
The controversial floor-crossing legislation allowed MPs on a proportional representative list to cross the floor to another party, taking their powerbase with them. It is farcical. As a result, many serious democrats will refuse to vote out of protest, because they know how easy it now legally is for a listed party candidate to cross the floor after greater prizes. Roll up the four-by-fours!
This all means that public commitment to the 2004 election will be less than ever before.
Politicians like an apathy vote. It gives them the confidence to move on without irritating voter interest and involvement. This does not bode well for a democratic future in a country in a continent not known for its commitment to the disciplines of human rights and representation. So we need excellent voter education!
Boring! No one cares for voter education, because we all we think we know what to do. We do know, but most of us don’t do it! Who listens? Who thinks? As with the campaign to alert people to the dangers of HIV/Aids, unless the presentation is alert, provocative and entertaining, no one will bother. How many times do smokers light a cigarette while reading the warning on the box: smoking can kill you? So voter education must be uplifting and original enough to grab the new voters!
Since the 1999 election millions of 18- to 22-year-old South Africans have not been able to focus on their power of democratic choice. They must be alerted to register and be involved. Lapsed voters who are cynical about the power of democratic choice must be captivated again by the magic of optimism and hope for a future.
But basically we must bring to the attention of the people the fun of being one of the people. The excitement of having a vote — that individual key to the door of the future. The need to use that key. The urgency to focus on the potential leaders and make the right choices.
If democracy enshrines choice, then choice must be the issue. To refuse to choose, is to allow the worst choices to win. So just when we all thought politics couldn’t be fun, make it fun. Let’s find a party and commit to a future for all. That’s the New Year’s resolution!
The 2004 election will not be about voting for a government. We will get a government.
The 2004 election will be voting for a future!
Pieter-Dirk Uys is an accomplished South African playwright, satirist and Aids activist