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Why not registering to vote is bad for democracy

Many South Africans have decided not to register to vote in the upcoming national elections. Anthony Egan SJ begs us to reconsider our decision to register — while we still can — and honour “the memory of those who suffered and sometimes died for what we have now.”

The evidence of South African voter apathy reflected in low voter registration turnout, particularly among young people, is bad news for our democracy. 

Here’s why — and an appeal to remedy it.

NB! If you have already registered — THANK YOU! If you haven't registered AND you're convinced by my arguments OR just plagued by a guilty conscience — you can still register to vote at your nearest IEC office, please call 0800 11 8000! 

Not voting = accepting the status quo

The bottom line if you don’t register to vote or choose not to vote if you are registered, is that you are accepting the status quo in South Africa. You are accepting perks for parliamentarians and jobs for pals, tax hikes and toll roads, dismally poor health, education and social services, corrupt and incompetent civil service and policing, and endless and expensive policy indabas producing pipedream programmes guaranteed to fail.

If you don’t vote — you lose your voice in all of this. Silence is consent. You have consented. Don’t complain afterwards. Just suck it up.   

Am I being harsh? Yes. Absolutely. But at very least perhaps I now have your attention. Keep reading.

Many may have reasons for not registering. Some may truly not think it matters, that their lives are OK and that registration and voting is a distraction from enjoying themselves. They are mistaken.

Governance affects us all, particularly in highly-regulated societies like South Africa. Laws and management may not seem to affect us, but sooner or later they do. Government policy and local and global perceptions affect us directly in a myriad of ways: the economy, service access, personal safety and basic freedoms to be ourselves.

Not voting or not being able to vote means that we cannot create a society in which we are able to be ourselves — and to let others be themselves.

There are, of course, other arguments why people shun elections.

But our political parties are rubbish!

We hear this all the time, don’t we?

Party A is so incompetent that it couldn’t organise the proverbial booze-up in a brewery. Or, they could if the booze was ‘free’ (i.e. paid for by public taxes) but organising the transport to and from the brewery stymies them.

Party B is a party of the old elite (and some of the new elite) whose interests they serve without care for the poor.

Party C are a bunch of revolutionary wannabes whose policies on closer examination would reduce the economy to rubble, throwing us into the camp of basket-case countries like Venezuela, Congo and North Korea.

Party D and Party E are basically ethnic nationalists who seem incapable of thinking beyond their respective ‘tribes’.

Party F is a tiny rump, a relic of the struggle era that refuses to let itself die.

Party G is a disaffected faction of Party A.

Parties H to L are the personal fiefdoms of individuals incapable of fitting into larger political formations.

And Parties M to O are religious nuts who would like, to varying degrees, to turn our secular democratic and pluralist society into theocracies in line with their various gods. And — all of them are crooks!

Have I managed to offend everyone in the South African political scene? I hope so. If I’ve missed anyone, my apologies — consider yourselves formally offended too.

Apart from reflecting back what I hear in many communities, I would like to make this point. We may well, to varying degrees, be correct. But still — this is no excuse.

Political parties are human organisations, filled with contradictions and more than a little hubris. Unless citizens get involved, putting pressure on parties to clean up their acts and actively telling them what they want, parties will take the line of least resistance: dishing up the ‘same old, same old’ rhetoric and policies and… If citizens don’t lobby parties and show readiness to vote out underperformers and those who embrace sectoral interests (whether economic, racial, tribal or religious) they won’t change.

You get what you work for, not what you grumble about. Voting is work, at least it is a start to the work we need to do.

But the Electoral Process Does Not Get Us What We Want!

This leads me to another objection I hear: we’ve voted before, we’ve been promised the earth, and we have got nothing! So why bother voting?

This is, I agree, one of the best arguments against voting. If parties make promises and don’t keep them, why vote for them? Please note: ‘for them’. There is a temptation in politics, particularly South African politics, of what I call ‘sentimental voting’. ‘I vote as my parents voted.’ ‘I vote out of cultural, racial, religious or class identity’. Or indeed out of a sense of a party’s past history, past achievement and/or past glory.

Loyalty is a good thing but if we forget the lesson of history — that all institutions including political parties evolve, sometimes decline, and sometimes no longer meet our needs — we short-change ourselves.

We need to transcend sentiment and sometimes engage in strategic voting. We should be willing to shift allegiances, however temporarily. We might ‘punish’ a party that has not delivered — or as a form of ‘shock therapy’ to get our party back on track.

You can’t do it, of course, if you haven’t registered to vote or decide not to vote.

Extra-democratic action for change: a dangerous choice

Many people in South Africa, it seems, have given up on the electoral process. They prefer direct protest action over persuasion regarding Parliament as at best a distraction and at worst a sop, the democratic ‘opium of the masses’.

Don’t get me wrong. Protest and direct action is undoubtedly an important dimension to politics with a long and respectable track record in getting things done in South Africa and elsewhere. It was vital for getting us to democracy in 1994. No ruling elite ever willingly gives up power — it needs a push, even a revolution at times.

But there is a risk. Protest usually generates repression. At times this repression can be catastrophic. There is no such thing as an inevitable revolution. In democracies protest action is even more vulnerable to failure, not least because to varying degrees it entails breaking the rule of law which most people — who are, let’s be blunt, by nature conformists — find unsettling.

When lives are disrupted by protest, there is a tendency to resent disruption more than supporting the issues that generated protest in the first place. Above all, most people want to get on with normal things: earning a decent income, raising families, enjoying their friends and leisure undisturbed.

Activists ignore the saying “Revolution is the Opium of the Intellectuals” at their peril.  While sometimes protest action is absolutely necessary, the more one resorts to protest as the primary means of achieving one’s political or social goals, the less likely it is to succeed.

It is boring and politically unsexy to say this, but the democratic process — lobbying, engaging with parties, voting — properly engaged in is more likely to achieve long-term goals.

So let’s be boring in 2019

I agree, here at least, with Winston Churchill: electoral democracy is a pretty bad system of government, boring compared to revolutions and personality cults, until we look at any of the alternatives. I could expand on this but this would be a whole new article. 

In South Africa, democracy came at a terribly high cost. If for nothing else, we should honour the memory of those who suffered and sometimes died for what we have now, however imperfect it is.

So let’s be boring.

To those who are registered I ask you: vote. To those who have not registered, especially the young first time voters, do all you can to get registered. Find out where you need to go to register — and register! And having done so, start critically examining party policies: ask if what they claim is (a) possible and (b) desirable. Start putting the political screws on our parties so that 2019 is not just an empty exercise of the ‘same old, same old’.    

NB! Again... If you have already registered — THANK YOU! If you haven't registered AND you're convinced by my arguments OR just plagued by a guilty conscience — you can still register to vote at your nearest IEC office, please call 0800 11 8000! 

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.