/ 14 October 2022

South Africans, don’t agonise, take action

People’s power: Voters wait at a polling station outside the hostels in Umlazi, Durban. Voting remains critical to bring about the change desired. Photo: Marco Longari/AFP

South Africa has no shortage of people who can articulate its problems. From educated scholars with PhDs to those fighting daily to survive, people across the length and breadth of the country can point to the problems and speak with conviction about their various causes. 

Yet, as important as dialogue and discourse are to democracy and progressive politics, talking alone will not reverse the deep crisis in which our nation is trapped. 

As Elinor Sisulu recently reminded us when South Africa commemorated Women’s Day, “Don’t agonise, organise!”

Words are simply not enough.

Pan-Africanist Thomas Sankara once said: “Our revolution is not a public-speaking tournament. Our revolution is not a battle of fine phrases. Our revolution is not simply for spouting slogans that are no more than signals used by manipulators trying to use them as catchwords, as codewords, as a foil for their own display. Our revolution is, and should continue to be, the collective effort of revolutionaries to transform reality, to improve the concrete situation of the masses of our country.”

As people from all walks of life, living in and hopefully through a moment of crisis, we must ask each other one critical question: “What are we willing to do to create the South Africa we deserve?” 

The call to action by Sankara, the leader of what is now Burkina Faso and who was assassinated in 1987, challenges us to meet this moment in South Africa with a collective and intentional effort to change our circumstances. We need to redress inequality, to take the ideals of dignity and justice, the bedrock of our Constitution and common life, and use them to create the South Africa we all deserve to live in. 

Yes, we must share and contest ideas but change will only come through action. 

With South Africa’s 2024 national and provincial elections approaching, the act of voting is an important place to begin. In a democracy that has not delivered on its promise, South African voters are disillusioned by the power and meaning of the vote. The result has been a steady decline in voter registration and turnout. 

On 8 October, the Rivonia Circle convened more than 160 activists to a workshop called South Africa 2.0: Mobilising People’s Electoral Power. The keynote speaker was Nsé Ufot, a long-time voter rights activist and chief executive of an NGO called the New Georgia Project

Ufot has worked for 11 years organising young, black, Hispanic and other historically marginalised voters in Atlanta, Georgia, in the United States, to reclaim the power of their vote. The New Georgia Project has registered more than 700 000 new voters in Georgia and mobilised to turn out millions more at critical elections over the years. 

Although some have argued that voting is a low bar for political action, Ufot emphasised that while direct action such as protests, projects and legal action are necessary, voting remains a part of the toolkit for change that affects people’s power in a democracy. 

Instead of seeing people’s action as separate from voting, the New Georgia Project has worked to make clear and concrete connections between the direct action before and after elections, and using the vote as a lever to hire and fire public representatives, based on how they deliver on the issues for which people fight and organise. 

“We elect people to go to work for us,” Ufot said. “Politics is the only job where you get to be trash, trash, trash at it but think you can continue to get the privilege to serve.” 

The way to bring an end to this is by organising to vote for change before an election and organising for accountability after an election. 

The discussion turned to the quality of the choices on the ballot, with people lamenting the options that seem like mobilising people to vote for more of the same. 

Ufot encouraged South Africans to not limit themselves to existing options if those are not the desirable ones. 

“Organise for what you want. Vote for what you want. Fight for what you want,” she urged. 

This is relevant both for the issues we place on the election agenda and the people we are willing to vote for. 

Organising is work. It is the work of listening. It is the work of collaborating. It is the work of contesting ideas and power. It is also the work of setting an agenda and finding people we trust to enact our agenda. Even as it relates to elections, organising for a country that works for everyone cannot be limited to an electoral time line. It must be work that we do year in and year out. 

On the road to the 2024 elections, South Africa can test the power of organising for what we want. Politicians and political parties are organising for what they want. If power is to be returned to the people, people outside of formal party politics must organise. 

Rather than being an individual endeavour, voting is the largest group project any society embarks on. The time has come for all members of “Project South Africa” to arrive at the table –— the millions of tables in homes, on street corners, around fires, in arts theatres, at sports grounds and in community halls. We need to strategise toward 2024 about the issues we care about, for the new version of South Africa we are willing to build. 

By the time political parties and politicians are ready to present voters with their various manifestos, we the people must have a “People’s Manifesto” that reflects our collective aspirations and, most importantly, our collective demands. Anyone seeking our vote must meet our standards and commit to our agenda. 

The time is most certainly now. Ufot asked the people of South Africa to stop waiting for a hero. “Who are you waiting for? Will he have an ‘S’ on his chest? There is no superhero or messiah coming.” 

It is the people, through commitment, intention and conviction, who will catalyse change, one conversation and one action at a time. 

The power to act is not the preserve of the few. Democracy is not governance by the few. As such, change cannot be left to a few. When Sankara spoke of the revolutionaries who would bring change, it is worth noting that he was speaking of collectives and not individuals. 

Moving South Africa out of the economic, social and leadership crisis we are burdened by will require a movement of radical and historic solidarity. All ideas, hands and resources must be on deck. We require safe spaces to contest ideas and persuade each other. We need less mistrust and more collaboration. 

More than unity, South Africa needs to enact solidarity that aligns our interests, motivates our actions and urges us to support and enable the efforts of others. 

Beyond raising our voices, we must now raise our hands. 

Tessa Dooms is an activist, sociologist, development practitioner and a director of the Rivonia Circle, a hub for policy and political alternatives.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.