This might seem a natural process in a political democracy in which citizens actively engage their parties. But this is no ordinary political party. The ANC is unique for its long and proud liberation struggle history, its once-visionary leaders, and its commitment to a non-racial, non-sexist South Africa that sought economic transformation that benefitted the majority of South Africans. For those of us who were born into and wholly identified with the ANC it is an enormous challenge to openly critique the ANC. Many on the inside fear to do so given the cronyism, factional control and closed ranks. Yet it is also liberating, necessary and in the best interest of South Africa. Many sympathetic to the ANC have been unhappy with the ANC but have felt powerless to do anything, let alone say anything publically. This is reflected in the growing number of voters staying away from the polls, despite higher voter registration.
The Vote NO! or Vukani (Rise Up)-Sidikiwe (We Are Fed Up) Campaign is aimed at reversing this trend, at empowering people to reclaim their vote to say enough is enough! In doing this, the Vukani-Sidikiwe campaign has added a crucial dimension to our national conversation. The evolution and reception of the campaign allows us to gauge the state of various aspects of our constitutional democracy. At the heart of the campaign is a simple but politically powerful proposition: vote in the national election but choose to either spoil your ballot (through writing the word NO! across the ballot paper) or vote tactically for parties other than the ANC and DA.
While the intention of the campaign is to raise voter awareness about political choice during the elections, it is not an NGO voter education initiative. The campaign is a serious and unprecedented political intervention, by activists and citizens who fought in the struggle against apartheid and who continue to contribute to strengthening our democracy. Our campaign is informed by deep concern that the degeneration of the ANC, as the dominant political party, is threatening the future of the democracy and country.
The abuse of power by the ANC as reflected in widespread corruption such as Nkandla, economic policies that deepen inequality and unemployment, failure to embark on a just transition to address climate change and attempts to roll back democratic citizens rights (through the infamous Information Act, Traditional Authorities Bill and the tragic Marikana massacre) suggest we are fast becoming a failing democracy. Those who vote for the ANC are giving a mandate for more of the same and must take responsibility for this. More importantly, the only way this crisis of democracy can be addressed is if citizens shrug off their apathy (12.7 million eligible voters did not participate in the last election) and participate in the forthcoming elections to challenge the ANC. Citizens must think carefully about how they want to use their vote, given the stakes. South Africa’s democracy is at a turning point and its future can only be secured if we mobilise collective citizens’ power that say’s: NO! to the abuse of power by the ANC.
The origins of the campaign are crucial to foreground. Rather than top-down intervention, the main campaign idea of spoiled ballots came from the Democracy from Below initiative, made up of mainly young grassroots activists inspired by the radical turn in youth politics evidenced in the Arab Spring, the Occupy Movement and the militant unemployed people’s movements rocking Spain and Latin America. Many of these young people are searching for new ways of engaging in democratic politics, beyond political parties from which they feel disconnected and alienated. Ronnie Kasrils and Nozizwe Madlala Routledge are patrons of this movement. The spoiled ballot idea was shared with AWETHU!, a Platform for Social Justice made up of grassroots NGOs and movements, as it was trying to clarify its role in the forthcoming election. Various participating organisations in AWETHU! have endorsed the initiative while there is an ongoing discussion inside to reach a collective consensus. At the same time, the spoiled ballot idea was also shared with and endorsed by the Democratic Left Front, in which various social movements and left groups converge. An engagement with NUMSA took place, with hundreds of shop stewards, who seized upon the idea in Port Elizabeth. Formally NUMSA is sticking to its resolution not to support any political party but is interested in a continuing engagement. All of this affirms that in 20 years of democracy, in which popular demobilization has been taking place, progressive civil society is experiencing an awakening and willingness to fight to deepen democracy (both representative and participatory democracy) and to mobilise for direct democratic action.
The Vote NO! Campaign has been attacked viciously by the ANC controlled government and the ANC-led Alliance leadership. Senior cabinet Ministers have referred to the campaign as ‘treasonous’, the ANC General Secretary has attacked Ronnie Kasrils and Nozizwe Madlala Routledge personally and other Alliance components have denounced the campaign in strong and sometimes vitriolic and inflammatory language. Such political rhetoric confirms that the Vote NO! platform challenges the ANC. It also shows that the ANC is incapable of appreciating that politics in our constitutional democracy does not begin and end with the ANC. It does not have a monopoly on what it means to be political and to take a stand for South Africa. The constitution of South Africa gives the Vote NO! campaign the right to exist. Moreover, the intolerance on display from the ANC speaks to the increasingly authoritarian politics of the ANC. The ANC is showing itself incapable of understanding that in a democracy political disagreement, including critique, does not mean antagonism, but rather a recognition of differences. Democracies will not work if all those who disagree with you are declared enemies, and in this case, enemies of our ostensible democratic state and ruling party. Twenty years of ANC rule has not produced a democratic culture based on tolerance, respect for difference and a plurality of voices.
In this context the media in South Africa is a crucial actor in our public sphere to amplify democratic debate and engender a democratic culture. The campaign was calculated to emerge on the eve of elections to dynamise the election debate and the media has risen to the challenge. However, in reporting on the Vote NO! campaign some in the media have tended to focus on individuals and easily slip into a ‘celebrity discourse’ or ‘individual bashing discourse’ around the campaign. It would be important for the media to also speak to people on the streets and grassroots movements like the Unemployed Peoples Movements, the workers in the winelands, the mining affected communities linked to the mining network (MACUA), or even striking platinum mine workers. The media should seek to widen the conversation in a more inclusive way. Going forward media reporting in a democratic South Africa must ensure our public sphere is not merely spectacle and elite performance. We need a media committed to democratising our public sphere so voices from below give meaning to our democracy and help to strengthen democracy where it counts.
Many are engaging in the Vote NO! debate, with different emphases on the voting proposition: spoiled ballot or tactical voting. This speaks to the vibrancy of the national conversation, which has been the primary goal of the campaign. Many media editorials and commentators have come out in support of using tactical voting as the most effective means to impact on the elections outcome and shift political power. We agree that using tactical voting has a greater material impact. The most powerful political statement, according to this intervention, is to vote for any opposition party other than the ANC. However, the Vote NO! position has a nuance in this regard which is to challenge us to think carefully about what is on offer: what are the values, practices and policies of such parties. Twenty years of electoral competition and it would seem none of the centre-right opposition parties have been able to assail the dominance of the ANC, despite lower voter turn out for the ANC in 2009 compared to 1994. This prompts the question: are the opposition parties really speaking to the aspirations and needs of South Africa’s majority? Moreover, to stem disaffection and ensure the maturation of South Africa’s democracy has the time arrived for a serious left wing party? These are some of the questions coming to the fore in the debates.
The Vote NO! Campaign does not seek to determine how South Africans should vote. While many people engaging the debate would prefer South Africans to vote for any party other than the ANC, it is important to balance the debate. For the first time we have a campaign platform in a national election which will ask the IEC to count and publicize the NO! Votes, believing that as a conscious act of registering a protest vote, the Constitution would defend the right for the vote to be counted. It is likely that we will see a spike in the number of spoiled ballots (from its current average of approximately 200 000). Many disaffected from the ANC or not attracted to the opposition—and who might normally simply not vote—will consider such an option. There are three reasons for this. The first is symbolic in that a message of NO! conveys a sense of outrage at the ruling party and affirms the power of citizens’ voices. It says our democracy and our future is more important than degenerate ANC rule; put South Africa first. Second, it affirms the need for ethical standards (honesty, accountability, transparency, service to the people, sacrifice, etc.) in our politics. Without the consideration of ethical values in our national conversation we will end up with an Americanised democracy riddled with hypocrisy, media hype and big business control. Third, it lays the basis to deepen democracy through citizens’ actions from below and for a movement to emerge, even after the elections, to defend our democracy against the abuse of power.
Ultimately, voting NO! is a democratic right and strengthens our democracy. The world’s largest democracy, India, among other countries, has formalised it as a valid voting option. It is referred to as: None of the Above (NOTA). If parties in South Africa are not helping to realise the aspirations of the historically excluded majority and bring about democratic transformation then we should a have right to withdraw our consent. A spoiled ballot option forces political parties to appreciate they cannot take the needs and aspirations of the people for granted. It is something the IEC should include on the ballot paper in future elections, while in this election, citizens who do not want to vote for any of the parties must consider spoiling their ballot by writing across it: NO!. In the end, the real winner is our democracy.