Open letter to South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC)

If you don’t vote, you can complain
Open letter to South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC)
Rosa Blaauw and Jared Sacks (2009-03-11)

Re: Misinformation on IEC TV ads for voter registration including the ad ‘if you don’t vote, you can’t complain’

Dear Chairperson Dr Brigalia Bam,

A recent television ad for the campaign for voter registration by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has a line which implies that non-voting South African citizens have no power to bring about change in this country. ‘If you don’t vote, you can’t complain’ shows the short-sightedness and arrogance of the current political system, which attempts to convince South Africans that voting is the most effective and only way to bring about change in this country.

We are not stating that democracy cannot help a country if democracy is defined as the people taking control over the political system. But these ads seek manipulate people. They offend our rights as citizens and undermine the constitution which enshrines our right to choose our political convictions as well as our right to protest. If the most effective way to measure democracy in a country is the way those in power treat dissent, then South Africa continues to fail as it uses both violent and manipulative means to keep people quiet.

What that one liner implies is that we, as law-abiding, tax-paying, contributing and knowledgeable citizens, cannot criticise the current political system because we boycott the vote.

It advocates that we must vote in order to make our voices heard, even if we think there are no political parties that represent our beliefs and can carry them out in an honest and incorruptible manner.

It says that the strides made by anti-voting social movements (which brought about democracy as we know it today in our country) and some politically-conscious groups (who advocate understanding of our political past; the local, global and hidden agendas behind them) were for nothing. We are condemning freedom of choice, thought and expression if a non-partisan body openly judges our right to choose whether to vote or not.

But South Africa’s new social movements, taking their cue from what we have learned during the anti-apartheid past, do show us alternatives. The Anti-Eviction Campaign has stopped over 90 per cent of the evictions in their communities. Abahlali baseMjondolo has given a voice to thousands of shackdwellers fighting for their settlement to be upgraded rather than eliminated. By voting with their feet, these poor people’s movements force our government officials to think about the poor and oppressed everyday rather than once every five years.

Some would argue that if you’re not for something, then you’re against it. Against what, exactly? Corruption at the highest levels that threatens the honourable legacy of resistance and sacrifice to rid us from oppression? Oppression still exists, in the form of economic segregation and pro-capitalist development. Whether it is the Democratic Alliance (DA), the Congress of the People (COPE), the African National Congress (ANC) or the Independent Democrats (ID), they will all continue to corrupt our voice when they vote in parliament to oppress us.

False promises are being made to millions of people who still have very little choice but to see their one vote as hope for a better future for themselves and their children. Are campaign promises and baby-kissing the only act of influence that we react to?

The irony is that power tends to corrupt, and it is no more true than in this beautiful country. Whoever is voted in as the next ruling party will succumb to the same.

The smokescreen of the voting process should not be used as a salve for all the injustices of the past and present governing systems. We believe in the right to choose and in the right to unbiased and open information that is available to the public. Voting can make a difference but only if our political and economic system is restructured first. It is unfair to accuse the non-voting public of apathy, indifference or ignorance to the state of their nation because they are unhappy with the electoral process.

Voting never overthrew apartheid or Jim Crow in the United States. It never ended colonialism or imperialism. Neither can it end the oppression of liberal democracy.

Regardless of whether one chooses to vote or not, the reality is that change has been brought about by far more than just voting.