/ 21 May 2024

It’s been a wild ride since 1994, but South Africans must keep on voting

Graphic Tl Pillay Voters Page 0001
(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)

I remember going with my parents to vote on 27 April 1994. It was a Wednesday. I was still in primary school and did not comprehend the full gravity of the moment, but I knew it was important and exciting.

My family studiously watched the news every evening. We waited for the official announcement that Nelson Mandela would lead our born-again country. 

The promise of freedom had arrived in South Africa. The illegitimate National Party was ousted after 46 years of racist rule. Apartheid was over — officially, at least.

In his inauguration speech as president on 10 May 1994, Mandela reminded us that “there is no easy road to freedom. We know it well that none of us acting alone can achieve success.”

The Mandela years were as romantic as our story will ever get. A government of national unity, liberation heroes in key portfolios, a sari-wearing Frene Ginwala as our speaker, the tears of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the influx of global investment. We were the postcolonial darlings of the West, evolving at dizzying speed. Madiba’s magic made us believe in unicorns. I was just a kid, oblivious to the fact that I was living through history — now, a highly contested one.

When Thabo Mbeki took over the presidency in 1999, I remember reading a magazine article profiling him as an exceptionally hard worker who had exacting standards of those around him. As a teenager developing my own political consciousness, I felt as if we were in safe hands.

When I was at university in 2004, I was finally old enough to vote.  As an undergraduate student in psychology, sociology and media studies, my emerging ideological outlook left me feeling less confident that our positive fortunes as a country were necessarily guaranteed. This was the era of growing cynicism about the ANC, largely because of Mbeki’s Aids denialism, coupled with the spectre of the Arms Deal, arguably our first major scandal of government corruption.

I voted for the first time on 14 April 2004 in Northdale, KwaZulu-Natal, the historically Indian community I grew up in, with a feeling of nervous enthusiasm. The weight and privilege of voting has never been lost on me. Not as an indecisive teenager, and not now, 20 years later. Voting, for me, is a personal, psychological, moral and civic responsibility. I care about how my taxes are spent. I take time out to understand how the mechanics of our parliament and provincial legislatures work — what politicians do inside those buildings directly affects our lives. I also know that every vote can count, because our elections are not a winner-take-all situation; we are voting for 400 political representatives to fill those seats in parliament.

When the ANC fired Mbeki in September 2008, I was ironically at a leadership workshop in Stellenbosch, ambitiously learning how to best contribute to Africa’s growth and development. Mbeki’s recall was a shock reminder that politics changes like the weather.

It was also in 2008 that I became jaded with Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s “rainbow nation” metaphor. This was a scandalous year for race relations, with one of the most tragic incidents taking place in Swartruggens in North West. An 18-year old white boy woke up one morning, got into his father’s van, drove down to a nearby township called Skierlik and, in an act of racist violence that dominated news headlines, opened fire on its residents. As a journalist and psychologist-in-training, I could not resist turning this into the topic of my master’s dissertation and found myself staying in Swartruggens for two weeks to delve into the psyche of a deeply troubled town, indicative of a country clearly struggling to exorcise its historical demons. Of course, there are no quick fixes to undo 300 years of anti-black colonialism.

I studied for my master’s exams in 2008 under candlelight, as we entered this strange new world of “load-shedding” — an albatross that still burdens us.

When I voted in 2009, conflicted as I was, I still held on to the belief that if Jacob Zuma won, he should be given a chance to implement the progressive policies of the ANC, and that despite our misgivings about his odious character, he was leading a party that had demonstrably made life better for the majority of South Africans in just 15 short years. Objectively, black people had better access to houses, water, electricity, toilets, schools, clinics, education, income and dignity. The ANC’s promise of a better life for all was taking shape, albeit slowly, unevenly and suspiciously.

As Jonny Steinberg said in a recent column, South Africa’s democratic history can be seen in two halves: the first 15 years of growth and optimism, and the second 15 years of decline and pessimism. Hindsight is always clear, and Zuma killed any hope of a county united in common purpose. He turned us against each other.

No sooner had I written a column reluctantly saying, “give Zuma a chance”, I was mobilising a cohort of my peers to sign an open letter demanding his resignation.

State capture by Zuma, the Guptas and their cronies, worsened unemployment, inequality and the brain drain. Mandela’s inaugural promise that “the time to build is upon us” was callously replaced with a time of looting, corruption and nepotism.

The re-election of Zuma in 2014 happened despite the formation of the Economic Freedom Fighters and the heyday of the Democratic Alliance as the official opposition. 

On 10 May 2014, precisely 20 years since Mandela’s inauguration, Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) chairperson Pansy Tlakula announced the national election results by cheerfully observing: “We can confirm to the world democracy is well and thriving in this land.”

Indeed. South Africa continues to have peaceful, timeous, free, fair and credible elections. The IEC works. We have a multi-party democracy. We have freedom of speech. We have thriving opposition parties. We can criticise whoever we want without being jailed. We have an online and offline public sphere that is engaged in the happenings of our fledgling nation-state. As I’ve argued elsewhere, our democracy is a model for the rest of Africa.

Despite Tlakula’s confidence, I was flabbergasted that Zuma was re-elected. I struggled to understand how a country can vote against its best interests, except to acknowledge that our racial, tribal, economic and geospatial histories truly back us into corners, blur our vision and indoctrinate us with false certainties. But the Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall student protests of 2015-16 left no holy cows — universities were being burnt, decolonisation was being demanded, young people were gatvol. The 13th of February 2018 could not have come any sooner. Unlike the recall of Mbeki, which left me worried and confused, I celebrated the recall of Zuma as a victory that the ANC had finally come to its senses.

Hope is powerful and we all cling to it in times of despair. It reminds us that our nightmares are not real, that our panic is misguided and that Utopia is just a day away.

So I drank the Kool-Aid of Cyril Ramaphosa. I was an up-and-coming middle-class professional working in the public health service, living in the suburbs, wanting an economic reason to stay in this country — the prospect of a billionaire president was appealing. Why would he steal? Surely he would know how to stimulate GDP. Surely a capitalist-in-chief will reduce unemployment and attract investment. 

I organised a mental health symposium in Durban and in 2018 we even themed it “Thuma Mina!” — a nod to the phrase that Ramaphosa borrowed from Hugh Masekela in his inaugural State of the Nation address. In February 2018, Ramaphosa made a clarion call to action for citizens to step up and “seize this moment of hope and renewal”. 

Mandela’s protégé was finally being given the opportunity he was denied in 1999 — to become president. His popularity secured him the presidency in 2019. I still found myself conflicted in the voting booth, and I was not alone. A whopping 600 000 people voted for the ANC on the national ballot but not on their provincial ballot. This number pointed to an interesting paradox: voters trusted Ramaphosa to become president but punished the ANC back home. The ANC scraped its lowest majority in 25 years, losing 1.4 million voters and 19 parliamentary seats. Political apathy also spiked: half the country did not vote during our last election. In my analysis at the time, the election left us with 10 important questions — a key one being why so few young people registered to vote.

Ramaphosa foolishly squandered the trust that voters gifted him and the Phala Phala saga tarnished his reputation. We have learnt, the hard way, that politicians are politicians are politicians.

I was once on a panel discussion with activist Rama Naidu and he loudly declared, “Sorry, but Superman is not coming!” Those words stayed with me as a reminder to not project our hopes and dreams onto fallible individuals, mere mortals who charm us for a vote, but will abandon us for a couch full of cash. Urging us to become active citizens, Naidu bemoaned that we expect too much top-down leadership. “It lets us off the hook so we can say someone else messed up.”

Next week, we will hold three ballot papers in our hands. There are no right or wrong decisions on 29 May 2024. I am not sure which parties deserve my vote. But I do know this much: voting is just one action among a range of other actions that we must use to keep the cogs of this country running transparently. 

My participation in building and improving society neither starts nor ends with a black pen. Political participation is a process, not an event.

We must never give up on holding our leaders to account because, whether we like it or not, every single democracy in the world is run by politicians, and we rather influence the game than pretend like it doesn’t affect us. A luta continua, vitória é certa.

Suntosh R Pillay is a psychologist, researcher and activist. He writes social commentary in his independent capacity. @suntoshpillay