OPINION | There’s more to democracy than just voting

There’s a piece of graffiti on a new apartment block of plush student housing on the border between Mowbray and Observatory in Cape Town, two suburbs where many University of Cape Town students live.
The graffiti, painted with a brush and not the usual spray-can, simply says: “Don’t just vote. Organise.”
The words and the style of graffiti brought back many memories of similar-style protests in the 1980s, but we would probably have written then: “Don’t vote. Organise.”
We did not have the vote in the 1980s. We only got that privilege in 1994.
One of the key tenets of any democracy is the right to vote, which South Africans exercise for the sixth time in national and provincial elections today – in fact, some people have already exercised this right through special votes, locally and abroad.
In an environment where many people with moderate leadership skills have identified “public service”, whether it is in national or provincial government, as an easy way of securing employment at the taxpayers’ expense, it becomes more incumbent on those of us who might be classified as “ordinary” to make sure that those entrusted with our vote, deliver.
If they do not deliver, they should be pressured so much that their time in office becomes unbearable.
In many ways, those of us who were involved in the struggle inside the country, especially during the 1980s, are to blame for where we find ourselves today. We organised people throughout the country to oppose apartheid until the once-mighty Nationalist Party regime had no option but to release Nelson Mandela and other political leaders and to unban the ANC and other political organisations.
They had no option but to sit down and negotiate the future of our country with the ANC and others. The result of those negotiations is found in the constitution which, 23 years after its adoption, is still considered to be one of the most progressive in the world.
But when we reached the early 1990s, and change was beginning to happen, many of those who had been involved internally, including myself, stepped aside in order to let our returning leaders take over.
They even convinced us to close down the UDF which had been the main organising front inside the country. Grassroots organisation, which had been the backbone of the UDF, took a backseat and our focus turned to how many votes we could generate for the parties that we supported, so that we could have as many representatives in parliament as possible.
We realise now that closing the UDF was a major mistake, but it is too late to go back in history and to try and revive the organisation. The situation is different and the UDF has been replaced by a plethora of civil society organisations, each with a focus area aimed at improving the lives of those who call SA their home.That includes people who have come here from other African countries in search of a better life, after we became a democracy.One of the good things to come out of the Jacob Zuma era was that, in many quarters, we saw a return to the activism and organisation of the 1980s, especially during Zuma’s second term as president.Many people realised the only way to counter parliamentary democracy is via people’s power, depending on a show of force outside of the parliamentary-focused political parties which have become the new establishment.In our eagerness to overcome apartheid and racism, we overlooked the impact of colonialism, which probably had a greater impact on our country than the 50 or so years of formalised apartheid.At some point we probably have to start challenging the impact of capitalism on our country, but that will likely be left for the next generation.The good thing is that we now have a generation of young people looking for answers to the many problems in our society, including the seemingly invincible triple challenge of poverty, inequality and unemployment. We have not found the answers in the past 25 years so we might have to look for some radical solutions in the next few years.This election is probably going to be the most significant of the six elections we’ve had in our democracy, barring the first election in 1994. This election will come at a time when the ANC has faced one of its biggest crises since its unbanning, and maybe even before. It is struggling to shrug off the image of a corrupted party, despite the best attempts of party president Cyril Ramaphosa.Probably sometime on Saturday when all the votes are expected to have been counted, we will know how much confidence South Africans still have in the ANC, or whether they have started to explore other alternatives.This election might also be the last opportunity for those with a grounding in the struggle to be able to have a major impact. By the next general election, 30 years into our democracy, those who were involved in struggle will probably be far outnumbered at the polls by younger voters with no loyalty to the struggle or to the country's history. That could be a good and a bad thing.It could be bad because every struggle needs a history, but it could be good because we tend to make too much of our struggle history in SA. Yes, it is true many have sacrificed to get us to this point, but many of those who were involved in struggle have moved on, some have become rich and, sadly, some have become corrupt, which, one might argue, negates any contribution they might have made during the struggle.While political parties battle it out in parliament, they should know that the people outside parliament remain a formidable force, and this can only happen if we have strong civil society organisations that keep the elected on the straight and narrow.I hope that the graffiti on the new student accommodation does not suffer the same plight as graffiti throughout Cape Town and get painted over. The message, that democracy is more than a vote, is a strong one and should stay there as a reminder, especially to those in parliament, that “ordinary” people voted them into power and “ordinary” people can remove them.
Fisher, a former newspaper editor, has started a company, Ikusasa Lethu Media, to help marginalised people and organisations tell their stories...

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