/ 8 May 2019

Voting sheepishly (but not like a sheep)

The obstacles to a just and equal society are so many
Local government elections will take place on 1 November. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

Everyone was dressed warmly.

A couple and their friend plus their dog, were standing behind me. The dog looked healthy, well-fed, and the gentleman he was with had a bowl of fresh water for the beast. The water looked very clear, and the bowl, spotless. The dog sniffed around my ankles and, though I looked unimpressed by the unwanted attention, one of the humans said to me, “He likes you!”

Many other people in the queue were drinking hot beverages they had either made at home, or picked up on the way here, as additional protection from the early morning cold. Those of us not with friends or family were playing with smart devices, and my voyeurism in the direction of those closest to me, suggested that access to data wasn’t an issue for us here.

One or two people were in fitness gear, and had jogged their way into the queue. Outside on the road, lots of cars were parked, many of them expensive models that speak to life here in Sandown, Sandton. For a brief moment I wondered whether I was in a queue at Woolworths or whether I was in a voting queue. This was certainly not the South Africa of the home affairs department.

This was a queue featuring those of us who live on the cushy side of the city.

Two of my last thoughts as I entered the voting booth today, were, firstly that; until specifically inequality is fatally broken, our society will remain exclusionary and unjust; and, secondly, until a culture of accountability is entrenched, inequality will continue.

I wondered how many voters in nearby Alexandra township were going to be tempted to stay away from voting stations if the cold weather continued and they do not have warm clothes or hot beverages to endure the elements. I thought too of how many South Africans do not have access to clean drinking water. Some doggies have it better than many of them. I thought, too, of the young, black, timid, IEC staff members who, at times, did not know how to deal with the confidence and entitlement of some of the middle class people in our queue.

Some of the staff members looked like they suffered impostor syndrome. It did not help that one woman — let’s call her Becky, for the sake of argument — voted, and came out, and instructed the people in the queue, “It is chaotic inside! If your surname starts with any letter from A to M, then get out of that queue and into a second queue here!”

Her assumed authority, derived from her class and racialised positionality, resulted in the main queue collapsing for a few moments before the timid electoral staff apologetically asked everyone to simply return to where they had been standing. Becky left, shaking her head, and I swear her thought bubble contained the words, “Can I speak to the manager please!”

We are a deeply unequal society and none of the parties on my ballot papers had convinced me they have a clear, feasible and urgent plan specifically to tackle inequality. Yet I also knew that I should, somehow, take account of lingering inequalities, of a variety of kinds, as I made my mark. Not because I am selfless or virtuous but because I am scared, and rationally so I would claim that if we do not think of the fate of South Africans worse off than ourselves, then we are all going to regret the consequences of inequality that had never been attended to. It simply does not make sense for middle class voters, myself included, to think about politics in narrow class terms. We need to look for political parties and leadership that is capable of and serious about smashing privilege, smashing inequity, and marching towards economic justice.

Yet, the obstacles to a just and equal society are so many. There is no easy way to solve all of the drivers of the problem. And there I was, needing to vote, needing to not succumb to analysis paralysis. And so I reminded myself that a culture of accountability is crucial to eliminating inequality. It is no exaggeration to say that we would have been a far less unequal society today if our political culture was not characterised by impunity, and an absence of servant leadership and responsive, caring governance. I had to get to work, and vote. I accepted that all of the choices on the ballot papers were not ideal. But I decided, pragmatically, to make my own judgement call in service of accountability, and mitigating against the weaknesses of our party political system.

I do not believe in political pluralism as an end in itself. I do, however, believe that competitiveness is helpful to improve the prospects of entrenching accountability in our political system. That is what ultimately guided my shameful, but not indefensible, voting choice today. The only more unpalatable choice, for me, would have been to outsource the decision to other citizens who do not know what my peculiar political preferences are. That is why I voted, somewhat sheepishly … but not like a sheep.