A famous political adage holds that bad officials are elected by good citizens who don’t vote. As a young democracy emerging from a tortuous past, we require few reminders of the centrality of voting to an effective representative democracy. Voting is the key mechanism to ensure that our political, economic and social interests are represented, accounted for, protected and promoted. Moreover, voting is the legitimate instrument through which we can replace one government for another, or elect a party to parliament or select an individual to represent us at local government level. In other words, voting provides the mechanism for governments to govern with our consent. This is fundamental to achieving democratic legitimacy. Qualitatively, the higher the level of voting, the more representative is the democracy.

The core of the liberation struggle was for the achievement of universal adult suffrage. Yet, to date, South Africa’s local government voter turnout is mixed. In the first democratic local government elections held in 2000, voter turnout was just 48,7%. Whereas in the intensely contested 2016 local government elections, some 57,94% or 15million people cast their ballots. Still significantly below national voting patterns.

But with the hard-won rights bequeathed by our democracy come commensurate responsibilities and duties. Key to these is the concept of civic duty, including a civic duty to vote.

In South Africa it is not compulsory to vote and making voting mandatory and punishable by law would be contrary to our constitution and individual freedoms. Yet some 26 countries globally mandate voting as a civic duty. These range from the well-known Australian case to that of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. While the penalties for not voting in mandated elections are relatively low, turnout in these countries is, of course, very high. Some countries such as Bulgaria and Norway and states such as Arizona in the US instituted an incentive-based system of a lottery prize being drawn for voters to encourage participation. The results of these experiment were mixed, however, and have largely been abandoned.

In South Africa, the importance of voting at the local level is re-enforced by the fact that our electoral system at the third-tier of government makes specific provision for direct representation in addition to party and proportional representation. This mixed member proportional representation system allows ward council candidates to stand for election irrespective of political party affiliation or as an independent. In other words, whereas few of us have met, or interacted with the member of parliament deployed to represent our constituency and of course we do not elect them directly, we elect our ward councillors directly and thus the accountability mechanism is direct and strong.

Civic duty has other dimensions too. It is also one’s civic duty to familiarise oneself with the many party manifestos in circulation. Some 325 political parties are contesting elections across eight metropolitan municipalities and 205 local municipalities. Election manifestos globally tend to make a raft of promises, but it is part of the electorate’s civic duty to scrutinise election manifestos in at least two respects. Firstly, to what degree does the manifesto reflect accurately the track record of political party in question? Secondly, are the promises that are being made feasible, realistic and costed? A further element that has become topical in the current local government election campaign is establishing the ‘qualifications’ of the ward council candidate. Again, it is one’s civic duty to ensure that the candidate has the appropriate credentials to represent the community effectively for the forthcoming five-year period.

Day-to-day lives are transformed less from the Union Buildings in Pretoria, or by Parliament in Cape Town, or indeed via the Supreme Court in Bloemfontein, but rather by good service delivery at the local level. Given where we have come from as a country and the sacrifices made by so many to achieve universal suffrage, it is our civic duty to vote and make the right choice for each and every one of our local communities.

Tim Hughes is Managing Director of ReadDillon Public Affairs Company



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