In defence of the non voters

DEMOCRACY: And South Africa’s political system

I have a friend; let’s call him Ken. Ken supports and believes in democracy, but refuses to vote. He is proudly South African, but does not support the South African political system.

In a country where political party posters are hidden in basements, polling stations are burnt to the ground, and violence is used to deter or instill fear in voters, I can see where Ken is coming from. This is not democracy or a democratic system.

This is not an apathetic viewpoint of “my vote won’t make a difference”, but rather the idea that our democracy and political system is corrupt and the chances of votes being tampered with are so high. Watch the news after voting day and I guarantee that you will hear or read about several cases of corruption.

Ken has an idea for democracy: electing a body of representatives from different sectors of society who regularly bring key decisions to the table and then offer these to the public to vote on. I believe the last civilization to really exercise a truly democratic system of this nature where the ancient Greeks with the senate. I understand that Swiss politics operates in a similar manner today.

No El Presidente. No single person with absolute power. If history is ANY guide, power corrupts, and no one man should ever be given so much power whose decisions affect everyone. We should be cautious of anything that is so powerful, even in a so-called democracy.

Spread the power. Give more people a stronger voice in politics. While we continue to endure a state of social and political evolution, there will always be differences and conflicts of interest. If one particular party with a particular agenda is elected, this evolution will be moulded in their favour. The voices and opinions of the public will be drowned out; at least until the next elections a few years down the line when this whole process happens again.

Part 2: The possible political position of non voters
Daily Maverick Article: Don’t vote. It’s your right

** More Opinion & Analysis Articles **


Galen (name), meaning: "Curious One". A lover of language, human ingenuity and the forces of the universe. Hugely drawn towards the mysterious and unknown. Regular laughter and escapism essential.

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17 Responses

  1. Christopher Baird says:

    Ok… but in the situation where you believe that the system is corrupt then vote for a party which you believe represents you and has a policy in line with your beliefs, and if you believe that no party has such, then vote, but spoil your ballot. In all events I believe you have a duty to vote, even if to, as a mark of disagreement spoil your ballot. A statement which will make me unpopular is to say that, if you are eligible to vote, and fail to do so, you should be at work today.

  2. Galen says:

    Okay. What about the case where someone feels that they don’t know enough about the political parties, who their leaders are, their backgrounds and agendas, to make an informed vote? Should they go on someone else’s opinion and vote anyway?

    Ken talks about a scenario where you have a board of representatives from different sectors of society – education, agriculture, engineering, housing, international politics etc. who discuss key decisions. Examples could be a temporary tax increase in support of X, or more funding put into education instead of tourism, for example. These are then offered to the public who cast “yes” or “no” votes. And this process would happen regularly, even monthly.

    Is it inaccurate to suggest that in South Africa people fear the government rather than the government being in fear the people? I understand that the latter is largely the case in countries such as France where political fervor to protest is high…

  3. Melissa says:

    I’m seriously considering whether to vote or not today, and have been doing so for the past month or so, since I registered in JHB. I like ‘Ken’s’ idea, but I’m not really like him. I believe our democracy can work, if there are multiple parties (or at the very least 2) that are strong and competitive, so elections are truly contested. However, like Chris said, I don’t believe any party represents me and my values and beliefs.

    The problem with not voting or even spoiling your ballot is that you get dismissed as apathetic or an idiot who can’t understand a ballot paper. There should be an option for “I’m not an idiot, I just think all the parties suck”. I’d put my cross next to that.

    Interestingly, I get a fanatical response when I tell people I’m thinking of not voting. It’s like I’m a bad person if I don’t vote. Why is that? What’s wrong with telling all parties, especially the ruling one, that I don’t agree with their methods so that maybe they’ll get a wake-up call? I hear this is happening en masse in Ermelo.

  4. Christopher Baird says:

    So the question is, would the inability to make an informed choice justify not choosing at all? and further, if justified in not choosing, would that justify not voting?

    To start with the latter of the questions, voting does not necessitate making a choice between candidates; there is the option of spoiling your vote. So, even if you were to find that ignorance justified not choosing, it would not justify not voting. Again, the important principle is that, as a citizen of South Africa, you have a civic duty to vote.

    Leaving the above aside which is dispositive of the point, surely you would not argue that self-inflicted ignorance could justify not voting?

    We can only assume that in an age where the information you are claiming possible ignorance of (policy documents etc.) is widely available, that any ignorance of that information is purely a function of not seeking it out, and as such, is self-inflicted?

    Don’t misconstrue what I say, I am not saying you need to know the information you claim ignorance of, I am just saying that, to the degree you claim that the information is important to you, and is a pre-condition to you voting; the information is openly available to you, and the only reason you don’t know it, is because you don’t want to.

    With regard to your second point in respect of Ken’s board of representatives – I cannot see this an argument against voting in the current system, I only see it as an argument as to how the system should possibly change to be more participatory, requiring more voting, rather than less.

    With it in mind that this point would, even if correct, not justify not voting – the concept you are referring to is direct democracy. An example of it is proposition 8 in California. There are many pro’s to the system, but there are also cons. I think it would make for an interesting debate to discuss the merits of changing to direct democracy, but I think engaging in the debate would lead our current debate with regards to the obligation to vote astray.

    Your last point with regards to the government’s attitude towards its people, it may very well be the case, but again, how, even if correct, would it justify not taking part in the democratic process. If anything, if correct, it would support the argument that there is a need to participate in the process and show through exercising the muscles of the democratic system (voting) that the government serves the people, and not the other way around.

  5. Christopher Baird says:

    Melissa, I completely agree that spoiling your ballot is not an effective way to instigate change in the system, but I also strongly suggest that not voting will also not change the system.

    If you do, as per the residents of Ermelo in your example, wish to express to a particular party your dissatisfaction, then vote, and vote for someone other than them.

    At a metropolitan municipal level, the seats are calculated on two basis, (1) on a per ward (pre-demarcated geographic area) who attained the majority of the votes – half the seats on the municipal councils are “ward councillors”, and (2) on a view of the total number of votes cast in the entire metropole what percentage did you attain.

    The point I am trying to make is that, if you want to send a message to a particular party, the most effective way of doing it is by voting for someone else rather than just not voting. Obviously not voting for a particular party still helps the other parties, but not to the same degree. By example, if you are in an area which predominantly votes for a certain party that you dont like, by choosing to not vote rather than vote for another party, you will make it easier for that party you dont like to win the ward you are in, and more generally, the city you are in.

    I need to go vote now, but I will come back and see how the debate develops.

  6. Neville McLean says:

    Galen, Im afraid Im with Chris on this one, many of the premises that you base your argument on (atleast in my mind) are flawed. Voter apathy is never the answer! Spoil your vote if need be, but dont sit back and complain about the situation (i.e corruption, violence etc.) and then do nothing about it. For surely the different levels of corruption are a direct result of the individuals who are put into power in in the first place. If you dont vote, things will never change.

  7. Galen says:

    While one doesn’t want to avoid the argument of whether to vote or not, it would be interesting to steer the discussion towards how to improve the democratic system overall, especially by hearing from people who are as clued up on politics and law such as yourselves.

    I agree that it is the responsibility of citizens/voters to clue themselves up on the candidates before casting their vote. However, what the majority of people/voters have with regards to attaining this information is the media, political campaigns and speeches made by the different parties, which is arguably obscured and biased information.

    I would argue that the majority of South African voters are not rightly informed in this respect. If one does adopt the strategy of simply voting for any other party other than the one they object to most, this still does not seem to me to be an obvious solution.

    If we were to hypothesise that we had a sort of senate system whereby key decisions are regularly subject to voters, the options would be 1. Yes 2. No 3. Abstain. In the broader scheme of things we don’t have this option.

    A party is elected into power by the largely uninformed masses and the improvement of society, infrastructure, education, service delivery etc. etc. is largely out of the hands of the public.

    Am I just being naïve here?

    PS: Keen to hear/learn more about direct democracy!

  8. Galen says:

    @Neville: My attempt was to get a discussion going on how the South African democratic system might be improved with regards to the voting process, and perhaps offer suggestions as to why political apathy is so in the country. I guess the only flaw is that this isn’t going that way :/

    For those who don’t know: a spoiled vote/ballot is when you cross more than one box or your cross goes over the bounds of the box allotted for a party. These are generally discarded if the party choice isn’t clear.

  9. Galen says:

    Have been having an interesting discussion at work about aristocracy and modern democracy. Colleague suggests that if one is born into wealth and status and knows from the start that his/her duty is to lead/be in power, one might have a stronger inclination to lead on principle above all else.

    A question arose: if society were to remove the prestige and status that comes with being in political power, do you think the people who opt to be in politics would be in it more for principle rather than to climb the ladder of success – i.e. more wealth, prestige and higher status?

  10. Neville McLean says:

    Sor G, I forgot about the fact that you are trying to create a discussion. I just get worked up about people who feel hopeless about our country! I know it isnt a reflection on your thoughts!

  11. Galen says:

    As many people do, but thanks N :)

    What are your thoughts on some of the ideas above? Re: improving the democratic system overall? On that note, why aren’t people allowed to vote electronically? I understand that the major issue would be that an electronic/mobile system would be subject to being rigged/hacked, but what’s the difference in risk when physically voting?

    Heard on the radio on the way back from work that 52% of registered voters are predicted to vote by 7pm today…

  12. Nick says:

    How about a party whose platform and manifesto is to introduce the sort of direct democracy you’re talking about? Get elected, change the system. Easy to sit back and complain…

  13. Galen says:

    @Nick: Sounds like a good idea!

    Please note that this isn’t a whiney complaint about our country and how is doomed because of its government etc., my friends and I don’t roll like that. I agree that if you don’t vote you shouldn’t complain. I’m sorry if it comes across that way. This wasn’t the intention.

    Rather, the aim of this was to raise and address issues and feelings, specifically amongst non-voters, and perhaps articulate ideas or suggestions for moving forward and improving the system – both the voting and democratic systems. We’re intelligent human beings and I’m sure there is a lot we can learn from one another.

    On that note, I had a thought in the shower this morning: would it be really impractical to allow each party a chance to SHOW their worth (rather than promise it prior to election time) by allowing each one a year in power consecutively? If each party had just a year to make a difference and prove their worth as a governing body, wouldn’t that offer great incentive for each to pull their socks up and really make a difference?

  14. Nick says:

    I like the rotating party idea but one problem I see with it though is accountability. If you’re guaranteed your year in power what’s the incentive to do well or not to plunder the coffers? if the plan is to then vote after x years to pick the best it could work. (provided the other parties don’t engage in outright sabotage during their competitors terms)

    My opinion is that if non-voters feel that no-one represents them, they should form their own parties. that’s the whole idea behind democracy!

  15. Galen says:

    I hear you Nick and see how that system could be abused. Someone also pointed out that if this happened we would have people in power (even if it is just for a year) that the people don’t want in power, which goes against the whole idea of democracy.

    There are plenty of people who feel that no party represents them. It’s been suggested that in this case one should spoil their ballot, which I personally don’t find constructive as these votes don’t count.

    What criteria are needed to form a political party besides funding? We know that qualifications aren’t much of an issue…

  16. Galen says:

    From the Daily Maverick article (link above):

    “There would be less of an excuse for not voting if the ballot contained an explicit “none of the above” option. That could be counted and analysed as an expression of deliberate intent, in a way that non-participation or spoilt ballots cannot. Such an option is often available in countries where voting is a legal requirement, for example.”

  17. Fieroz says:

    I am not happy with any of the political parties. I have my ideas and I would like to see a non racist non sexist south africa. Where people are in government to serve others. I believe we can make a difference. If we all get together and form a political party based on solid principles we can make a difference. Contact me if you want to make a difference. Mail me Lets exchange ideas and see if our principles are the same.

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