I have a confession to make. I did not vote in South Africa's municipal elections. But before you start stoning me, hear me out.
I feel a fair amount of guilt over this (yes, I know feeling guilty doesn't make it better. Keep reading, I'm getting there). I know that women fought to get the vote: literally fought. They starved themselves in prisons, went on marches, got themselves dragged behind horses and avoided censuses to show that they wanted to be counted in the most important way: to have a one person one vote policy. I am a woman, people struggled so that I could vote.
I also know that apathy is a serious problem. Many people sit and complain, or drink and complain or act irresponsibly and for the detriment of others, thinking that someone else will fix the problems. People should get actively involved in the problems plaguing their communities. The problems in the education systems, the corruption, the inefficient billing systems and the lack of real change for South Africa's poor are problems we all need to lend a hand in fixing. I read an article that said the number of poor white people has doubled since 1994 (to 3.6% of the white population) which is horrible. In 1994, 50% of the black population was poor. That statistic has not changed. I don't doubt we need our government to do a better job. I didn't decide not to vote because I am apathetic. I just think my voting isn't going to do that.
The problems I have detailed above are - undeniably - a fault of the almost fifty years of apartheid, and the ANC, who rules and has ruled most of South Africa since 1994 and is therefore responsible for the failures. Corruption is rife (as we have seen with endless Arms Deals and first-class tickets to Switzerland for "personal reasons" paid with taxpayer's money)and the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. The party who claims to cater to South Africa's poor clearly doesn't. Despite what Julius Malema may say about how much he donates to poor children.
So I should vote the other big alternative: the DA, right? ANC bad, DA good. That the DA had to be ordered to court before they would enclose toilets means that they don't seem to care about South Africa's poor either. This toilet saga was a big deal. And after seeing the pictures, I understand why. I thought "open toilets" meant a long drop rather than a flushing toilet. Turns out, an "open toilet" is flush toilet built in the back yard, practically springing out of the grass. As most households in poorer areas don't have walls, that means that to go and take a dump means doing so in full view of the neighbourhood. Way to go for fostering a sense of dignity. That the ANC built similar toilets doesn't make the DA any better: if anything, it links the two in disappointing ways.
And I've been to Cape Town. The DA may have had a multi-racial campaign (for which I applaud them) but in practise, Cape Town is the most racially divided, class-conscious place I have ever been to, and that includes Festival Mall in Benoni. Perhaps I shouldn't blame the attitude of the municipality on the DA, but South African author Ivan Vladislavic made a pertinent point:
"One of the things to be said about the Soccer City stadium is that it serves Soweto and is the home of soccer for many black supporters. It’s significant I think that this particular stadium has been upgraded and is being used for both the opening ceremony and the final game. The stadium in my area, Ellis Park, is traditionally a rugby stadium, although it has been home to one of the local soccer teams for the last few years.
By contrast, the Green Point stadium in Cape Town always felt like an unnecessary expense to me. Cape Town didn’t need a new stadium, certainly not in that part of the city, in my view. The money would have been better spent upgrading an existing stadium and building some sports facilities in areas more accessible to the poor, to the city’s black population".
Once again, a fail on the DA's part.
So why should I vote if I don't believe my vote will change the status quo, no matter who I vote for? I believe an initiative like LeadSA will make more of a difference to South Africa than its government(s). In other words, ordinary citizens doing their part in every way will have to make this country better, because governments and political parties are (at the end of the day) sullied by empty electioneering and simply, politics.
I did vote in 2009, not because I believed in any of the parties (although I believe I had a little more faith in Helen Zille back then) but because I was doing my part to ensure South Africa did not become a one party state. Perhaps something can also be said for voting for a smaller party with a really good candidate, but then - I reason - why vote for someone who has no chance whatsoever of representation? How am I helping effect change (if indeed I believe the candidate would effect change when voted in) if the candidate will be swiftly forgotten after they lose by a landslide?
Another argument for going to the polls was that if you didn't like any of the parties, one should spoil one's ballot instead of not voting as a sign of protest rather than apathy (which is apparently, what not voting means). I think spoiling my ballot will only make the IEC believe I made a mistake and will not really send any kind of message (as fellow blogger Mohamed Fayaz Khan so eloquently argues).
So I am not - by any means - apathetic about what happens in South Africa because I didn't vote. I read the news obsessively and do my best to find challenging, literary material for those I tutor. I care very deeply and wish to make my mark by being a brilliant educator. I don't believe I can make my mark and change South Africa for the better by voting for someone who will not make the necessary changes.
But I've been thinking. Short of joining the DA or ANC and becoming the political change I wish to see (not exactly in my career plans), how else can I contribute to the running of the country besides by voting, even if for the lesser of two evils? Also, why shouldn't I get involved in my community as well as vote. Surely (as long as you don't believe that your civic duty is done for the next five years once you have cast your vote), the one does not preclude the other.
Recently, I know of two examples when voting did make a difference. In Knysna, a community voted for an independent councillor who broke away from the ANC because she wanted to effect real change. Perhaps she will now be free to uplift her community, unhindered by dirty party politics. Perhaps there will be other councillors like her one day in other communities.
The second example was when I took a little time out to sign a petition on Facebook. I never believed those did any good either, until the petition I signed - the petition against corrective rape in South Africa - had so many signatures it reached the attention of government and the media. Sometimes something as simple as signing your name or (dare I say it) crossing a cross on a ballot can make a positive difference, or at least create awareness of a problem that may one day lead to its solution.
I do know also that voters' queues bring people from all walks of life together to cast their vote: one of the few times when South Africans unite. Perhaps for this reason alone, I admit I was mistaken and - despite my reservations - will go to vote next time.