If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal

By Imraan Buccus

Each time we approach an election there is talk of who one should vote for. People discuss the poor quality of choices, the smaller party options like Al Jamaah and even the need to spoil votes out of disillusionment with the state of our politics.

Elections can be hugely important but they’re not always all they’re cracked up to be. No one who has lived under a dictatorship or entrenched corruption would dismiss the right to vote in a free and fair election as trivial.

While Emma Goldman’s observation that “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal” looks a little silly amid those elections in which there are real consequences for society, there are many in which it has more than a grain of truth.

Throughout the world there are many democracies where the major political parties are more or less indistinguishable from each other, especially on economic questions.

There are many countries where no party can be a serious player without massive financial backing with the result that all serious contenders for electoral office represent the super-rich. The US and the UK are examples of these phenomena.

Every time we go to the polls we’re subject to all kinds of mystification. We’re told that if you don’t vote you can’t complain, which is not true. Some of the most organised and effective complainers in our society are grassroots organisations that boycott elections.

We’re told that voting is a way of conveying our particular concerns upwards when in fact, unlike other forms of political activity, there’s no clear way to read the intention behind an individual vote.

One person may vote for the ANC out of desire to protect a tenderpreneurship empire or in support of self-serving authoritarianism. The person behind her in the queue may cast the same vote but with a heavy heart and the real sense that this is the last time she will give her support to the party if its degeneration continues.

Others may be moved by the confidence Ramaphosa inspires. Since assuming office Ramaphosa has distinguished himself as a high-energy president who has had to hold both party and state together.

One person may vote for the DA in order to curtail the ANC’s power or out of racism and another in the hope of more efficient service delivery.

Democracy should never be reduced to voting and elections. Democracy is at least as much about everyday forms of contestation and organisations as it is about elections.

A free press, an independent judiciary and the right to organise and protest freely are as important for democracy as free and fair elections. But those political theorists who, like John Holloway or Alain Badiou, write off elections altogether are seriously mistaken.

In many countries, removing an authoritarian government from power via the ballot box is the only real option available. Community mobilisation of social movements is vital political work but on its own it cannot resolve the fundamental contradictions of our society.

We have witnessed some extraordinary popular struggles on the mines and in communities, but even the best of these have no power to, for instance, nationalise the platinum mines and redirect their profits into social projects. Only the state can do this.

The ANC is a glorious liberation movement and close to the hearts of most South Africans, but many are disillusioned with recent happenings.

The first option would be to rescue the ANC. The other dominant parties are all neo-liberal. This is also true of most of the minor parties.

The Economic Freedom Fighters is not neo-liberal but with its deeply problematic leadership, its authoritarianism and its narrow racial chauvinism, it is not a credible progressive alternative.

The launch of a new workers’ party by Numsa a few weeks ago is an important step towards the normalisation of our politics. It means, for the first time, that there will be a clear and independent left force in our politics.

But this year’s election is a few weeks away and people have to decide what to do now. With Ramaphosa at the helm, surely the ANC can still be rescued.

How we vote or if we spoil our ballots, is a deeply personal decision.

Buccus is Al Qalam editor, research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the academic director of a university study abroad program on political transformation.

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