By Ibrahim Saleh

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Spoiling your ballot is a greater contribution to democracy than staying at home, writes Ibrahim Saleh.

Cape Town – Elections only serve as a technical transition for democracy because of a notion of “stateness” that includes political stability, government effectiveness and regulatory quality, but the rule of law and control of corruption, through political liberties and democratic rules, remain democracy’s primary pillars.

It is widely accepted that competitive elections are an essential component of democracy. Competitive elections in turn require competitive election campaigns and an environment where voters can express their opinions without fear of retribution.

A number of questions must be considered while examining the issue of elections and political communication in South Africa: is there a rigorous and vibrant political environment? Does the media empower the electorate? Are South African citizens making informed voting decisions?

More importantly: is there a change in elections-related issues in the 20 years since the first elections?

The current pre-elections period attests to South Africa’s democratic values, although the past 18 months has witnessed public grievance and anger resulting from the government’s poor service delivery, widespread unemployment, unequal labour-related gaps and a high cost of living.

This hostile setting poses serious threats to the ANC as a result of its failure to realise the gravity of the situation.

Several new political players are set to contest the polls, which mark the 20th anniversary of South Africa’s democratic transition from apartheid. The appearance of new parties that will probably take support from both the far-left of the ANC and the centre or centre-left (EFF and AgangSA respectively), not to mention the rising popularity of the DA, should create an atmosphere of political debate that was not present at the last election in 2009, or even at the 2011 municipal election.

However, South African voters do not make up their minds anew at each election because partisanship guides electoral outcomes. It is thus much harder to expect change to happen over short periods of time.

The “Sidikiwe! Vukani! Vote No Campaign”, launched by Ronnie Kasrils and others, has come to revalidate the rhetorical question of whether voting makes a difference. Nonetheless, South Africans overwhelmingly remain enthusiastic about ballot politics.

I think ANC popular support persists, but it is more fragile than it once was. There is no more “blind loyalty” in the sense of not seeing the faults of the ANC. Besides, many ANC voters perceive corruption not as something for which the party, as an organisation, can largely be blamed.

It is known that South Africans’ love affair with elections is never-ending. This campaign only means there are new emerging voices, even within the available political actors in the political landscape. Spoiling ballots or voting for a minority party could help put a dent in the ANC’s majority. This only means a deepening of democracy in South Africa.

There are new centres of power, new elites in the democratic “new” South Africa that tend to deploy popular cultural forms in campaigns. This is a situation of spoiler effect resulting from vote splitting between candidates or ballot questions with similar ideologies, and could cause a strong opponent of both or several to win.

In this context, I believe spoiling votes is a valid democratic option, but it just doesn’t do enough to make your voice heard. In real democracies, you do not have to like any of the parties on offer, so spoiling a ballot is a greater contribution to democracy than staying at home, as it signals that voters value taking part in the democratic process even if they can’t find a party to support. It also tries to make a statement rather than opting out.

As such, I think the campaign only emphasises the maturity of South African people and politicians. The fact remains that more than a few voters who have supported the ANC in the past don’t know whether to vote or not. They are unhappy with their political home, but don’t have an alternative: if the ANC vote does drop significantly, it will be because many of these voters did not vote.

The campaign urges the voters to spoil their ballot rather than abstain because, in their view, this will send a clear message to the politicians.

Democratic values are an ongoing process of learning and internalising political socialisation, in which communication plays a central role. But the current state of affairs in South Africa is at stake and will be tested in the elections, when all political parties will face unique challenges in terms of communicative responsibilities that traverse not only how free and fair the elections are, but how average voters can be engaged on politically sensitive issues.

The establishment of the rainbow nation sought to split power as much as possible to prevent its abuse, by making all institutions and agencies report to different authorities. However, after almost 20 years, there are scars in the new free South Africa that have jeopardised the gains of South Africans’ struggle for freedom.

The trilogy of the past, present and future are typical narratives, and are often invoked in such debates, though used differently by political contenders. In this volatile period, events of the distant and the immediate past have been called up to determine the direction and nature of political news coverage.

South Africans’ support for democracy is lukewarm and has not progressed in any substantial way over the past 20 years. Public outrage is reflected in the tenuous social contract, policy disaffection, and distrust in the idea of realising the new South Africa.

A collective view in many circles is the “shame of failure”, which reflects the predicament in constructing a shaky sense of self out of the country’s failures to solve the main issues of poverty, unemployment, seclusion and inequality at all levels.

Ibrahim Saleh Profile Picture 100 x 100ACUNS member Dr. Ibrahim Saleh originally published this article on April 17, 2014 in Cape Argus, here. Dr. Saleh is a senior lecturer and the convener of political communication at the Centre for Film and Media Studies at the University of Cape Town. His most recent research investigates the “mediatisation” of regional political dynamics and the indigenous freedom agenda.


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Feature Image Photo Credit: UN Photo