Voting for democratic renewal

To save the ANC from itself, bring about internal organisational democratic renewal and catapult fresh, more wise leadership, it is better for loyal members, supporters and sympathisers to vote for any other party, but the ANC, rather than not voting.

Not voting at all is tantamount to giving the current ANC leadership a mandate to continue on its current destructive path for the party, economy and the country.

The current ANC government and leadership may reckon that the loud complaints, protests and denunciations of poor public services, declining economy and democracy, are only coming from a minority black middle class, the ‘clever blacks’, and in cries from poorer black communities as instigated ‘stooges’ of ‘third forces’, ‘foreign’ regimes and white ‘capitalists’ and by whites nostalgic for apartheid.

By not voting at all and therefore allowing the party and leadership one is despairing of, to be re-elected with the same or even greater margins is at best self-defeating.

The power of the vote is not only about just voting for one’s own party, or not voting at all; it is also about voting against one’s own party, and in this way holding one’s party accountable.

In our times of frustratingly unresponsive African governments and leaders, the power of voting against the party one traditionally supports may be more important in African and developing countries to hold leaders and governments accountable, yet is often underestimated.

Only a seismic shock such as losing significant seats in the local government elections or a national election will push the current complacent ANC leadership into changing from within. The malaise in the ANC has now reached such a point where the party has been captured to such extent by vested interests – and good members too paralysed to act, that reform is unlikely to come from within without a shock to its system.

Many unhappy ANC voters have burned down their local polling booths in anger over the lack of accountability of elected officials. A more effective strategy would be to vote for the opposition, even if one does not support or agree with their policies or relate to them or their leaders.

It is one’s democratic right not to vote. Not voting is a political statement. The truth is that if significant numbers of people do not vote as is the case in South Africa at the moment, it means that the available political parties, leaders and institutions are clearly not effective, relevant and accountable.

Many South Africans appear to wrongly approach voting for political parties as if they are supporting a football team such as Orlando Pirates or Kaizer Chiefs, who needed to be supported even when they failed. Many ANC leaders know that and will therefore have little incentive to become more accountable because they reckon that their supporters will always vote for them – or will abstain from voting rather than voting for the ‘other’ side.

The phenomenon of treating political parties as football teams not to be abandoned has sadly been the norm in many post-independence and post-liberation African countries also. Often, supporters of African liberation and independence movements support their parties even if they govern poorly.

Only, when the party and government totally collapse do such supporters and members wake up – often when it is too late: the economy, political system and social relations would have imploded under the weight of poor service delivery, mismanagement and rampant corruption.

Of course, many post-independence and liberation African countries often have opposition parties which members and supporters of liberation and independence movements cannot identify with. Some of the African opposition parties in the liberation or independence struggle were associated with colonial or white minority regimes.

In other cases, opposition parties are so small, irrelevant and socially, politically and economically disconnected from the majority, supporters of independence and liberation movements feel voting for them is wasting their votes because they will never get into power.

In the current South African national crisis, not voting gives the governing party and leaders a free pass. If they get re-elected they have no incentive to become more democratic, accountable and less corrupt – arguing they have been re-elected and therefore the voters support them and the status quo.

Nevertheless, South Africa would do well to introduce an extra box on the ballot paper which denotes a voter not agreeing with the performance of any of the political parties. Through this, dissatisfaction with governing parties and leaders and as well as the opposition – can be better measured. In the meanwhile, unhappy ANC supporters and members have a greater chance to make their own party and leaders more accountable by voting for opposition parties and leaders they don’t necessarily like or identify with.

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

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