'No!' tells the ANC enough is enough

The Vote No! campaign aims to empower people to reclaim their vote. (Gallo)

The Vote No! campaign aims to empower people to reclaim their vote. (Gallo)

Pick up any newspaper or tune into any radio broadcast and, before long, you are likely to hear discontent about the state of the nation and, in particular, the ANC.

This is expressed through the militancy of strike action, campaigning outside government buildings, booing the powerful and community protest actions, ranging from tyre-burning to stone-throwing and even setting fire to government buildings.

Increasingly, these expressions of discontent are coming from people who once (and some still do) identify with the ANC. This might seem a natural process in a political democracy in which citizens actively engage their parties. But this is no ordinary political party: the ANC is unique for its long and proud liberation-struggle history, its once-visionary leaders and its commitment to a nonracial, nonsexist South Africa that sought economic transformation that benefited the majority of South Africans.

For those of us who were born into and wholly identified with the ANC, it is an enormous challenge to openly criticise the party.
Many fear to do so, given the cronyism, factional control and closed ranks. But it is also liberating, necessary and in South Africa's best interest. Many who are sympathetic to the ANC have been unhappy with it but have felt powerless to do anything or say anything publicly.

A growing number of voters stay away from the polls, despite higher voter registration. The Vote No! – or Vukani (rise up) or Sidikiwe (we are fed up) – campaign aims to reverse this trend, to empower people to reclaim their vote to say: "Enough is enough."

In doing this, the Vukani/Sidikiwe campaign has added a crucial dimension to our national conversation. The evolution and reception of the campaign allows us to gauge the state of various aspects of our consti­tutional democracy. At the campaign's heart is a simple but powerful proposition: vote in the national election but choose either to spoil your ballot (by writing "No!" across it) or vote tactically for parties other than the ANC and Democratic Alliance.

The intention of the campaign is to raise voter awareness about political choice. It is not a nongovernmental organisation (NGO) voter-education initiative. It is a serious, unprecedented political intervention by activists and citizens who fought against apartheid and who continue to contribute to strengthening our democracy. It is informed by deep concern that the degeneration of the ANC, as the dominant political party, is threatening the future of the country and democracy.

The abuse of power by the ANC – as reflected in widespread corruption, economic policies that deepen inequality and unemployment, failure to embark on a just transition to address climate change and attempts to roll back democratic rights (through the infamous Protection of State Information Act, the Traditional Authorities Bill and the tragic Marikana massacre) – suggests we are fast becoming a failing democracy.

Those who vote for the ANC are giving a mandate for more of the same and must take responsibility for this. More importantly, the only way this crisis of democracy can be addressed is if citizens shrug off their apathy (12.7-million eligible voters did not participate in the last election) and participate in the elections to challenge the ANC.

Given the stakes, citizens must think carefully about how to use their vote. Our democracy is at a turning point; its future can only be secured if we mobilise collective power to say no to the abuse of power by the ANC.

The campaign's origins are not a top-down intervention. The main idea (spoiled ballots) came from the "democracy from below" initiative, made up of mainly young, grassroots activists inspired by the radical turn in youth politics, as in the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the militant unemployed people's movements rocking Spain and Latin America. Many such young people are searching for new ways of engaging in democratic politics, beyond political parties, from which they feel disconnected and alienated.

Ronnie Kasrils and Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge are patrons of the Sidikiwe movement. The spoiled-ballot idea was shared with Awethu!, a platform for social justice made up of grassroots NGOs and movements. Various Awethu! participating organisations endorse the initiative.

The spoiled ballot idea was also shared with and endorsed by the Democratic Left Front, in which various social movements and left groups converge. At a meeting with the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), hundreds of shop stewards seized on the idea.

Formally, Numsa is sticking to its resolution not to support any political party but will engage with parties and groups.

All this affirms that, after 20 years of democracy, during which popular demobilisation took place, progressive civil society is experiencing an awakening; it is willing to fight to deepen democracy (both representative and participatory) and to push for direct democratic action.

The Sidikiwe campaign has been viciously attacked by the government and the ANC-led alliance leadership. Senior Cabinet ministers have said it is "treasonous". The ANC secretary general has attacked Kasrils and Madlala-Routledge personally; other alliance components have denounced it in strong, sometimes vitriolic and inflammatory, language – confirming that this campaign challenges and bothers the ANC.

Twenty years of ANC rule has not produced a democratic culture of tolerance, respect for difference and a plurality of voices.

It also shows that the ANC can't see that politics in our constitutional democracy does not begin and end with the ANC. The Constitution gives the Vote No! campaign the right to exist.

The media are crucial in their ability to amplify debate and engender a democratic culture. Our campaign was planned for the eve of the elections to add dynamism to the debate, and the media have risen to the challenge. But some media have focused on individuals – a celebrity discourse. It's important for the media to speak, also, to people on the streets, to grassroots movements such as the Unemployed People's Movement, workers in the winelands, mining-affected communities and striking platinum miners.

The media should seek to widen the conversation. It must ensure our public sphere is not merely spectacle and elite performance. We need a media committed to democratising our public sphere so that voices from below give it greater meaning.

Many are engaging in the Vote No! debate, with different emphases on the proposition: a spoiled ballot or tactical voting. The vibrancy of the national conversation is the primary goal of the campaign. Many media editorials (such as the one in the Mail & Guardian last week) and commentators have come out in support of tactical voting.

We agree that tactical voting has a greater material impact. The most powerful political statement is to vote for any party other than the ANC. But the Sidikiwe position has a nuance here: it challenges us to think carefully about what is on offer and what are the values, practices and policies of each party.

Twenty years of electoral competition and it would seem none of the centre-right opposition parties can assail the dominance of the ANC, despite lower voter turnout for the ANC in 2009 compared with 1994. This prompts the question: Are the opposition parties really speaking to the aspirations and needs of South Africa's majority? Has the time arrived for a serious left-wing party?

The campaign does not seek to determine how South Africans vote. Many engaging in debate would prefer them to vote for any party other than the ANC, but it is important to balance the debate.

For the first time in a national election, we have a campaign asking the Independent Electoral Commission to count and publicise the "no" votes, believing that the Constitution would defend the right for voters to register a protest vote, and that vote should be counted.

It is likely that we will see a spike in the number of spoiled ballots (from its current average of about 200 000). Many of those disaffected by the ANC or not attracted to the opposition, and who might usually simply not vote, will consider it.

There are three reasons for this. The first is symbolic. A "no" message conveys outrage at the ruling party and affirms the power of citizens' voices: it says our democracy and our future are more important than degenerate ANC rule.

Second, it affirms the need for ethical standards (honesty, accountability, transparency, service to the people) in our politics, without which we will end up with an Americanised democracy riddled with hypocrisy, media hype and big business control. Third, it helps deepen democracy by citizens' actions, from below, and helps the growth of a movement that, even after the elections, can defend democracy against the abuse of power.

The world's largest democracy, India, has formalised the "no" vote as a valid option, calling it "none of the above". If parties in South Africa are not helping to realise the aspirations of the excluded majority, we have the right to withdraw our consent for their rule.

A spoiled ballot forces political parties to see that they can't take the needs and aspirations of the people for granted. The IEC should include it on ballots. In this election, citizens who do not want to vote for any of the parties must consider spoiling their ballot by writing "no" across it. In the end, the real winner is democracy.

Dr Vishwas Satgar is a Vote No! campaigner and an academic at the University of the Witwatersrand.

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