The first occasion on which Freedom Day was celebrated in South Africa was in 1994. It was the day on which universal adult suffrage arrived in the country and the festivities took the form of long snaking queues of happy voters at the polling stations – young and old, black and white, new and seasoned voters all casting their votes on a common basis for the first time for a new start.
This year there will be no voting on Freedom Day. The next general election is not due until 2019 and the next municipal election is scheduled for 3 August this year. It is nevertheless prudent to reflect on the meaning of freedom and the manner in which it has unfolded in the new order.
At the first celebrations the words of Martin Luther King were liberally quoted by the celebrating leaders: “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty we’re free at last,” they exclaimed in joy. The question 22 years later is how much freer do ordinary folk feel after so long a period?
It is so that life in the last two decades is better than it was under apartheid and that the achievements of the new government have been many and varied. There are however some aspects of the new order that urgently need attention if we are to escape the fate of so many newly liberated countries in Africa in which freedom was followed by kleptocracy and failure as a state.
Starting with the vote, we need to reflect on the fact that we have become a dominant party state rather than a multi-party democracy. The governing alliance which consists of the ANC, Cosatu and the SA Communist Party is and always has been able to muster over 60% of the popular vote come election time. Only in the Western Cape is there a provincial administration that is headed by an opposition party, the Democratic Alliance. At the last general election the tri-partite alliance was able to get support from 62% of those who cast their votes. The troublesome figure is that the said 62% comprises only 36% of those eligible to vote in the elections.
Put differently, more eligible voters did not vote than voted for the ANC.
This stay-away is a poor reflection on the opposition, who have been unable to motivate those who do not vote to come to the polls and vote against the ANC-led alliance. Whether this is repeated in the municipal elections in August remains to be seen. Only one metro, Cape Town, is run by the opposition, but there is speculation that three more, PE, Jozi and Pretoria, are in prospect of falling into opposition hands in August.
Early indications are that there is a good deal of disenchantment with the ANC among ordinary voters. The disenchantment stems from the threats posed by the three ugly sisters who stalk the political parties: poverty, inequality and joblessness are endemic. Approximately 54% of the people in the country live in relative poverty, on less than R671 per month per person. This may explain the stay-away at election time on the basis of not having the means to get to the polling station which may involve a taxi ride or more if the voters are living at a distance from their nearest polling station. The levels of inequality in the country, as measured by the gini co-efficient for SA, are higher than they have ever been and the same can be said of unemployment, especially among the youth in both rural and urban areas.
These factors alone are not a sufficient explanation for the low turnout at the polls in general elections and the even lower turnout that is achieved at local government election time.
There is a malaise abroad in the land, a feeling of “gatvolgeid” that keeps people from participating actively in the hard won basic right to vote. This is unfortunate. Those who deliberately choose to withhold their vote from all parties in the field have no grounds for complaining when the usual suspects win again and again. A loyalty vote or a heart-based vote given by people who then mount service delivery protests against the very party for whom they voted is also not particularly helpful to the growth of constitutional democracy. Voters should vote out of respect for those who sacrificed so much to enable them to participate in free and fair elections. Voters should also vote with their heads for the party and the people whom they reasonably believe will best serve their interests with clean and good governance.
The failure of the political parties to lead with integrity, their inability to behave responsively and the lack of accountability in government have all conspired to drive the majority of eligible voters to turn their backs on the entire system. Voters do so at their peril. Their renewed participation in voting could be a major game changer in the political life of the country.
Those politicians who are true to the supremacy of the rule of law and genuinely uphold the values of the Constitution are the ones to follow. The state must respect and protect human rights. At the core of our Bill of Rights are the inherent human dignity of everybody and the promotion of the achievement of equality in the land. We ought to be able to enjoy our freedoms, not wallow in the mire of incompetence, lack of capacity and corruption on the part of those who lead and those who run the public administration.
Voters should look out for politicians who support the idea of creating an Integrity Commission under Chapter Nine of the Constitution. They are worthy of your vote. The rest are not to be trusted, their lip-service to anti-corruption plans and policies is revealed by their failure to empower the state to act decisively against the corrupt.
The best way to do so is to establish an Integrity Commission that gives specialised and well-trained, dedicated attention to the task of dealing independently with the corrupt. A properly resourced and effective Integrity Commission whose personnel enjoys security of tenure of office is what South Africa needs now more than any other single item on the political wish list. That and engaged voters.
Happy Freedom Day. DM
Paul Hoffman SC is director of Accountability Now