“No Vote” Campaigns are not a Rejection of Democracy, November 2005

Mail and Guardian
“No Vote” Campaigns are not a Rejection of Democracy

The Landless Peoples’ Movement (LPM) in Gauteng and Abahlali baseMjondolo, the Durban shack dwellers’ movement have both mobilised shack dwellers. And, at different times, both movements have, through democratic processes, arrived at a ‘no vote slogan’. The national LPM organised under the banner of ‘No Land, No Vote’ at the time of the 2004 national elections. More recently Abahlali baseMjondolo has organised under the banner of ‘No Land, No House, No Vote’ in the lead up to the forthcoming municipal elections.

These two movements arrived at very similar processes through independent democratic processes. But the response of the state has been the same – immediate repression. More than 60 LPM activists were arrested as they got off a bus and detained in Protea North Police Station on 14 April 2004. More than a dozen activists alleged assault and teargasing in custody and four activists alleged torture and laid civil and criminal charges against Crime Intelligence officers. In Durban the shack dwellers’ movement has organised a number of very large and completely peaceful marches on local councillors during this year under the banner of ‘Land & Housing!’.But recently the Foreman Road Development Committee, which represents the Foreman Road settlement which is affiliated to Abahlali baseMjondolo, tried to organise a march on Durban Mayor Obed Mlaba under the banner “No Land, No House, No Vote”. Suddenly the movement faced severe repression.

The Foreman Road march was planned for Monday 14 November. The Committee completed all the paper work necessary to apply for a permit to stage a legal march in good time. But three days before the scheduled march a terse fax was received from the Municipality stating that the march was “prohibited”. Two reasons were given for banning the march. The first was that “Officials from the Mayor’s Office have advised us that they have no feedback for your organisation”. The second was that “The Mayor’s Office labour is unable to assist you and there will be no representative there to meet you.” City Manager Mike Sutcliffe is responsible for administering requests to hold legal marches.

The Freedom of Expression Institute issued a statement condemning Sutcliffe’s ban as “a flagrant violation of the Constitution and the Regulation of Gatherings Act”. The statement went on to explain that the reasons given by the Municipality for banning the march were “absurd” and without any legal basis.

On the day scheduled for the march around 3 000 people gathered in the Foreman Road settlement. People were told that the march had been banned and it was suggested that a rally be held in the settlement instead. But the majority of people decided that they could not accept this attack on their basic democratic rights and that they would stage a peaceful march in protest. This act of peaceful civil disobedience against repression posed no threat to any person or property. The marchers, mostly women, set off singing up the steep dirt road that leads out of the settlement. They had just got onto Loon Road when they were met by the police. Without the mandatory warning the police charged the protestors and began arresting and beating people at random resulting in some serious injuries. Numerous eyewitnesses report that live rounds were fired. Moreover academics and journalists were threatened with violence if they reported what they had seen. Carvin Goldstone from The Mercury was threatened by Superintendent Glen Nayagar from the Sydenham Police Station and Raj Patel, a University of KwaZulu-Natal academic, had his camera confiscated by Nayagar.

The Freedom of Expression Institute issued a statement condemning “the eThekwini Muncipality’s blatant disregard for the rights of marginalized communities to exercise their freedom of expression” The statement described the police action as illegal on two grounds. The first was that no warning was given to disperse before the police attacked and the second was that there was no legal justification for the degree of force used in the police attack. The intimidation of the media and confiscation of cameras was also clearly illegal.

After the march there were extremely authoritarian statements from a number of officials, including the mayor, and Crime Intelligence officers were all over the settlements and certain individuals. There are alarming signs that Abahlali base Mjondolo activists may face further repression.

Hence it is necessary to contest the claim that choosing not to vote is an attack on democracy that legitimates state repression. It is usually possible to discern three logical errors behind this claim.

The first is the assumption that democracy is merely about elections to state office. This is not so. Democracy is a day to day practice that includes the right to express dissent in multiple ways and to constitute multiple associations for collective discussion and action. A collective decision not to vote in an election is in no way a renunciation of democratic values. Indeed it is striking how deeply democratic the Abahlali base Mjondolo movement is.

Secondly, there is an assumption that a decision not to vote somehow undermines the democratic process. This is not so. When individuals decide not to vote their choice is generally just read as apathy. But when people in a particular area take a collective decision not to vote they will be clearly understood to have made a collective political statement. The panicked reaction of local councillors and officials to collective decisions not to vote in some Durban settlements indicates the rationality and power of this strategy.

Thirdly, there is often an assumption that a collective choice not to vote indicates an irrational anarchism. In fact it is often a perfectly logical decision. If people are ANC supporters but feel betrayed by the party the choice not to vote allows them to express their dissatisfaction without having to vote for another party. Given that there is no progressive alternative to the ANC it is easy to understand why ANC supporting shack dwellers do not want to support other parties. And standing as independents can be inadvisable or impossible. It can be inadvisable because social movement activists are always stigmatised as having designs on power or as being manipulated by people with designs on power. The refusal of electoral politics is often an important way of avoiding this slur and keeping the focus on the issues at hand. Standing as an independent can be impossible when people are very poor and simply don’t have the resources or when they feel, as people often do, that they will be at physical risk should they attempt an electoral challenge to local elites.

Whether or not one thinks that collective declarations that there will be no vote if there is no delivery are wise the fact is that they are not anti-democratic. People are as entitled to decide not to vote as they are to vote for the party of their choice. There is no justification for the repression of poor people who choose to withhold their vote in protest against broken promises and a general lack of delivery. It is the people who illegally ban their marches, beat them up in the streets and threaten journalists and academics with assault if they report what they have seen who are a threat to our democracy. It is people like Mike Sutcliffe and Glen Nayagar who are a threat to our democracy.