For the first time in an election in a democratic South Africa, trade union federation Cosatu will not be providing undivided support for the ANC. For the first time, too, some ANC stalwarts are urging voters not to vote for the ANC (that is, the ANC of Jacob Zuma). They want voters to send a protest to the governing party, a protest they feel is needed urgently.
There has been some outcry at the idea of spoiling a ballot (by, say, scribbling all over Zuma's face) when the right to vote is one for which so many South Africans fought, suffered and died. But spoiling your ballot, as others have pointed out, is still a valid choice open to the voter – and a better one than simply staying away from the polls, which is seen as a profound rejection of the democratic process itself. Staying away just because you can't bring yourself to vote for the party to which you have historical loyalties is, in a way, a statement that electoral democracy isn't working for you, and that's not a message anyone in politics wants to hear, even subliminally.
For former intelligence minister and ANC veteran Ronnie Kasrils (who, in fairness, is complaining about some things that were already well in evidence when he was in government) and the others who have launched the "Vote No" campaign, it's essential that voters keep participating in the democratic process and don't just opt out, hence their notion of a tactical vote or, if you really can't endorse any of the parties on offer, a spoilt ballot.
But confusion reigns over their argument, even as the public sphere rings with denunciations of their position.
The confusion is captured in Kasrils's own personal addendum to his call: vote against the present ANC, he said, although he added quickly that he didn't want you to vote for the Democratic Alliance or a "God's party" (presumably the African Christian Democratic Party) either.
We would argue that a vote for any opposition party, and a corresponding reduction in the majority of Zuma's ANC, would be a tactical vote. The strongest blow to the ruling party would be if its majority fell below 60%. Too much power over too long a time leads to arrogance on the part of rulers – and must be contested.
Spoilt ballots will be ignored. Coming up with a big number of "spoils" after the polls, and using it to show that there is a groundswell of protest against the ANC, is not so much to close the stable door after the horse has bolted as it is to leave it open at all times. Spoiling your vote is a waste of a trip to the election booth. Numbers-wise, and contrary to intentions, it will ultimately count as a vote for whichever party wins.
So, don't opt out. Exercise your right to vote, not just because so many suffered and died for this fundamental right but because any ruling party that has become arrogant and heedless needs a wake-up call. A reduced majority would be a salutary jolt.