In the absence of a “None of the above” option on the ballot papers in next week’s general election, many, many South Africans may feel inclined to just sit this one out. The political elite have spent much of the past 10 years in a state of deep contemplation of themselves, and themselves alone. When they have been roused to look up and regard the world outside of themselves, they have had little to offer to adequately compensate for their failures.
Those failures have culminated in a society in which corruption is entrenched and misgovernance is the norm.
The consequences are far-reaching. The National Prosecuting Authority has been weakened, the South African Revenue Service has been wrecked and most state-owned enterprises are crumbling their way to collapse.
The economy is performing so dismally that South Africa is now ranked as among the most miserable economies in the world. After a brief illusion of dawn, we are again in the darkness.
But we have a beautiful belief that must wrest us away from the precipice of doom — democracy. It is the instinct for change that we must always protect. And that instinct for change is also realised in an election that is relatively free and fair.
Yes, there are abuses of power, with politicians threatening people with the loss of things such as their social grant if they vote how they want. But our electoral process is still an incredibly powerful tool. Those abuses remind us that we have to continue fighting for our democracy. It allows us to hold to account leaders who have not fulfilled their promises and reward those who have. That fortifies us.
And we are a country where democracy extends beyond the ballot. We live politics. It is our national conversation topic of choice and our soapie. Every day, people take to the streets demanding their rights, demanding that the people elected to represent them do better.
Every day, democracy is breathed through the streets, like the breath that sustains life. Every day, the news media reports on failures of governance, on the abuse of power. Every day, the judiciary acts unencumbered by politicians. And every day, people go to their elected officials and ask for accountability.
These are the spoils of democracy.
Twenty-five years ago, millions of people, who had lived under the yoke of a brutal regime, queued for hours, their bodies forming a living metaphor of liberty coiling itself against fear. Our democracy became a beacon in a world seeking hope. It is liberty for which we have fought, and it is for liberty that we must continue to strive.
Because there is much more to do, much more for which we must fight.
Too few of us have found economic opportunity in the liberty we won 25 years ago. And too many of us have seen little change in our lives, though the faces in the Union Buildings have changed as they ought. Too many of us face the prospect of poverty remaining our station in life. Democracy, we have found, is certainly not the utopia it is sometimes portrayed as. But it is also not the hell we could so easily have descended into.
Building a democracy out of the ruins of apartheid has taken great courage. But further enhancing our democracy will require yet greater effort, active involvement and resilience.
It will take a lot of work. And it will take time — and our challenges are only likely to multiply as the pace of change becomes more urgent. So it is imperative that our resolve to commit to a just, equitable South Africa is renewed.
What we have to do is to ensure that our institutions further civil rights, guarantee the rule of law and are subject to the will of the people. When we do, this democracy prevails.
And it will prevail not because of any individual politician, but rather because of the collective commitment of South Africans to a system of governance that fiercely rejects any inclination towards a still familiar obedience to authority at the expense of personal freedom — we have been there before, and we refuse to go back.
So, vote we must, be it for a party or in a spoilt ballot. Anything else would be a dereliction of liberty.