If parliament had 24 months to make the Electoral Act constitutional by allowing individual citizens to contest elections at all levels, we are now left with just 22 months. As our timelines on social media platforms were flooded with #ANCFriday at the end of July, another fault with how we conduct our elections became apparent in thought, we do not allow citizens to abstain on the ballot.
As we all know, elections are where we choose a policy mix that speaks to us as the citizenry. That is, what party has a pragmatic policy that most resonates with me and has the willingness and capacity to implement that policy. That is our feedback loop, it lacks the option to declare all options as collectively mediocre and not worthy of public office. That is why we need the people to be able to abstain on the ballot, not through absenteeism, it is not the same.
#ANCFriday was met with greater dissent this time than in previous instances. It lacked taste and could not have been timed any worse. The case against an ANC government has been growing and the constant decline from the peak of a two-thirds majority testifies to that. The flaunting of lockdown regulations and corruption allegations add to a list that should not be allowed to grow any further for a country that plans to soar in future. The people of the Republic have chosen the ANC since 1994. However, after engaging some ANC voters, the decision is not because of the absolute trust that they have in the capacity of their party, it is a mix of emotional attachment and reluctance to choose other parties. Even ANC officials who are honest enough agree that voting for their party is not the best decision for the Republic.
For a section of the population, maintaining that no party has earned their vote so they will opt for the ANC doesn’t seem contradictory at all. Well, it’s irresponsible and dishonest, contradictory is a light way of putting it. The ANC-led government has done it all, from stealing from us to beating us up and even killing South Africans. Regardless of the bar being low, by these standards, the bar is beneath the ground now. As an ANC voter, how do you tell your party that you don’t endorse all this if we have failed to convince you as the opposition to vote for us or if you simply refuse to vote for any other party? Abstaining as an option on the ballot is the solution.
The option to abstain on the ballot would not just be a relief to ANC supporters, there are South Africans who simply do not go to vote and that is what IEC generally registers as ‘abstaining’ and that is a problem. Not going to vote could be due to the inability to go to vote or because no party has captured your imagination. Now, for some citizens, their imaginations are not captured because they do not avail themselves to be courted by political parties. There exists a more interesting group though, those who have availed themselves to be courted but were left underwhelmed by the choices. It is this group of society that should be allowed to have their say, to express what they find to be lack of choices. As a registered member of the EFF, not speaking on behalf of the party, I can only be challenged and encouraged to do better if a member of society says that all choices are a collective failure in the voting booth. That is how all parties who believe in their moral and ideological ground ought to respond to rejection by voters.
I have ignored the idea that abstaining is a wasted vote long enough, now let us address that thought. On one hand, it does mean that your vote will have the same numerical effect as a spoilt ballot. On the other hand, it will be an actual expression of discontent, a charge to parties to not just do enough to be better than the next party, but to capture our collective aspirations. As things stand, some parties, one more than most, gallivant around with coerced votes, votes because of the inability to collectively reject.
If that is not enough for you, there is a more practical reason. As our democracy matures, margins will get smaller and smaller as we have seen with hung municipalities. The abstaining block will be the next source for a competitive edge for parties, the pursuit of that abstaining block will force parties to understand that you do not vote for them because of emotional attachments but because they stand to better our lives. Parties will chase this abstaining block and not those who stayed at home because by abstaining they signal an interest in the country’s governance.
The lazy thinker has probably cited that not having a choice to abstain is in line with international standards by now and it is okay, we must do the thinking for them as well. This proposal is to the Republic of South Africa, a so-called constitutional democracy that elects its finest through ‘free and fair elections’. If the voting enterprise is worth our time and really how the citizenry gives feedback about governance, the ability to reject all options should be there. It is either that or it is a lie that elections are how we give feedback and they are a farce.
How will the fear vote work with abstaining? For example, how will those who fear waking up to a Helen Zille presidency abstain knowing that abstaining gives a competitive advantage to those they fear the most? That is the root of mediocrity I argue, parties get away with what is unforgivable because they weaponize the possibility of worse case scenarios. This thought should not be allowed to find expression. Whatever you fear, it is better facing it compared to being held hostage by those who use that fear to hold you back. In such a setting, it becomes useful for the mediocre to have what you fear to continue existing so that they remain your ‘protection’ from it.
You have not given citizens a choice if you have already limited their options, give citizens the option to tell the parties to do better to earn their vote.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policies of The Daily Vox.
Malusi Ngidi is a Finance student at the University of Cape Town