My dilemma: Who to vote for

My dilemma is not necessarily who to choose, but rather why

Image: 123RF/Kadriya Gatina

Let me confess, I have never voted. I know, I know. It is utterly shameful. Trust me, between my family, friends and colleagues, I have received every kind of condemnation for having never exercised this hard-won democratic right.

I deserve all of it. Except maybe from those who often claim “if you don’t vote, you can’t complain”.

Yes I can. Choosing not to exercise one particular right does not in any way disqualify you from employing other tools of democracy to hold power to account and to participate in sociopolitical discourse as a citizen.

You see, for the first two general elections, when the choice of where to place the X was most obvious to many, I was not yet eligible to vote.

Thereafter, I simply could not make up my mind.

First, let me state up front that I am not at all advocating for voter apathy – far from it.

Sentiments aside, I fully believe in the principle of one’s vote as a powerful instrument of democracy.

The choice not to go to the polls was a result of my conflict over our political landscape, rather than a dismissal of my franchise. It is this conflict that exists in many of us that I believe is never sufficiently explored.

Often conversations about so-called voter apathy in South Africa are framed in an instructive manner that seeks to compel, by whatever means necessary, those who do not participate in elections to go the ballot box to make a choice, any choice.

Such conversations hardly interrogate the multi-layered factors that influence the decision by a sizeable portion of the electoral population to stay away from the polls.

For the 2014 general elections, 25 million South Africans were registered to vote.

Just over 18 million showed up to cast their ballots, a proportionally lower turn out than the 2009 general election.

This means 6.9 million registered citizens stayed away.

The biggest drop in turnout was in the Eastern Cape, where 6.3% more registered voters did not pitch up on election day.

It is reasonable to believe, based on various studies, that the biggest chunk of those are youth who are not necessarily apathetic, but rather disillusioned with the various political party options available.

Unlike in 1994, for example, the electoral choices of the average black voter, who makes up the majority of the electorate, are increasingly influenced by what each party can do and what it represents, more so than just its historic credentials.

On the one hand, this is indeed a sign of a maturing democracy.

On the other, it raises a different set of questions about the criteria we use when making our electoral choices.

A year from now our nation will go to the polls again to elect our sixth democratic administration.
This time, I hope to join the queues. My dilemma, of course, as with many citizens, is not necessarily who to choose, but rather why.

At the most practical level, we all want a party that will use the power we give it to run an efficient government that delivers services and creates opportunities for all of us to maximise our potential.

This is where policies of each party matter, be it on education, jobs, health services or social security.

But there is another layer to that choice that is of equal importance to me – values that I believe should shape our journey as we move forward.

For example, it cannot be denied that as a middle-class black woman, I am a product and beneficiary of the progressive economic policies of the ANC.

However, despite the election of Cyril Ramaphosa as party president, I remain unconvinced that the ANC can untangle itself from a deeply rooted culture of corruption which ultimately prevents more people from partaking in equitable economic activity.

The ANC’s internal democratic machinations from the bottom up are at times so compromised – as frequently exposed in courts – that often it is not the most capable but the most desperate who occupy strategic positions of power.

Similarly, while the DA has no doubt been a formidable player in holding power to account, it is its own conflict with race relations in our country that is deeply troubling.

No, the DA will not bring back apartheid if elected, as some claim. It cannot. However, the contestation within its ranks about the concept of race, white privilege and its impact on present-day South Africa demonstrates that some within its leadership do not fully comprehend the layers of discrimination, social and otherwise, still faced by black people.

In the absence of this profound level of understanding, the DA’s said commitment to building a country for all cannot go unquestioned.

Not least of all because of those in its ranks who believe that the liberation of one race is the enslaving of another, as party leader Mmusi Maimane alluded to recently.

Equally, while I celebrate the EFF as a vibrant and at times effective voice of the marginalised, one cannot reconcile with the party’s stated acceptance of violence as a morally justifiable language of politics under circumstances it deems necessary.

Rage is one thing, but violence and intimidation is another. Why are all these important? Because they shape how parties use the power given to them.

They influence what they see as important and how they respond to prevailing situations.

Of course, no party is perfect – because no society is.

The popular suggestion is that when voting one should “pick the best of the worst”.

Only it gets murkier when such a choice equally seems to be a betrayal of one or other fundamental principle of democracy.

I have a year to make up my mind.

By then, hopefully, I would have learned to navigate the political complexities that render each election an anxiety-inducing dilemma.