“Wannabe authoritarian leaders do not lead communities well when they are not afraid of the people, when they are not afraid of the consequences of doing a bad job,” American campaigner Nsé Ufot told a Rivonia Circle meet-up in Johannesburg recently.

By Naledi Sikhakhane

“What does my voting right hold for me? What is its value? If I was using it to trade, what am I getting back? How do I know it counts and how can I hold those I voted for accountable?” said Prince Qwabe, leader of Ekujuleni Community Development in Soweto, at an event organised by non-profit think-tank Rivonia Circle.
“You promised to deliver something. If I’m buying a fridge, there is a warranty and guarantee so I’m buying a promise. If I don’t get my promise, I should be able to take my vote back and say, ‘You did not deliver on your promise, keep it, I’ll keep my vote’. That is why millions don’t vote. There is no longer value in our vote.”
Several activists from around the country echoed Qwabe’s statements about voter apathy and general hopelessness at the state of South Africa at the event, which was held on Saturday, 8 October, in Johannesburg.
South Africa 2.0 – Mobilising People’s Electoral Power was held in partnership with the New Georgia Project, an American voter rights advocacy and lobbying non-profit organisation, and included panel discussions and workshops in which attendees created a manifesto of possible campaigns and ways to motivate people to vote as well as improve the current electoral system.
Lukhona Mnguni, the head of research and advocacy at Rivonia Circle, said it was very telling that elections were already being discussed and that it would take commitment to bring about change.
“There was once a time in the last 15 years when some of us said the country is in crisis. The majority of the people said not yet, because some of us suffer from the doubting Tom syndrome… Luckily, 15 years later, there is no doubt we are in a crisis. For the first time since 1994, people are talking about an election two years before it happens, which means they are willing to do something. The only thing that’s left is for them to commit to doing something about it,” he said.
Voter education and engagement
Keynote speaker Nsé Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project, provided the blueprint on how to create engagement in apathetic voters. As a civic engagement and voting rights activist, she and her team have helped improve voter education and registration in marginalised communities in Atlanta, Georgia, in the US.
Through the New Georgia Project, young people, black, Hispanic, Asian and unmarried white women are continuing to get registered to vote, she said. Ufot’s creative and innovative efforts recently landed her on Glamour’s 2021 Women of the Year list and on Time Magazine’s TIME100 Next list.
The organisation believes in “going where people are”, targeting popular sports, arts and education gatherings. “We try to create value… If you find students moving into college residences, help them move in, then talk to them about the importance of voting and register them,” said Ufot.
“The idea of adding 1.2 million black people to the voting roll is terrifying… Having people who are informed and confident about who they are voting for is scary to those in power and so they rather steal and cheat elections. They would rather have people withdraw from political participation altogether,” Ufot said, referring to the 2016 elections in which Donald Trump became the US president and voter numbers were at an all-time low.
Ufot says online misinformation campaigns targeting young people made them believe that their futures were already decided and they had no say in who the president would be.
“We are fundamentally unsafe and exposed when we don’t have robust participation in democracy. We are subject to the whims of unaccountable, wannabe authoritarian leaders who do not lead our communities well when they are not afraid of the people, when they are not afraid of the consequences of doing a bad job. We suffer, children suffer, women suffer, the people suffer,” said Ufot.
“One of the tools we have in our toolbox to build the country we want to see and prevent bad things from happening is the power of the vote. Yes, we have protesting. Yes, lobbying a government is important, [as is] running for office – but we need to have robust participation in elections as a way to make decisions as a society, decisions about the tax dollars, about our institutions, education, the climate and the world around us,” she said.
Ufot said New Georgia Project volunteers asked communities about their needs and what they cared about, and helped them see how voting gave them the power to decide about fundamental issues such as access to health, education and clean water. Having a say leads to safer communities and the intertwined nature of service delivery and a dignified life often encourage political participation and representation.
‘South Africa may have to start again’
An audience member pointed to the lack of quality leadership alternatives in South Africa: “Every political party has its own corruption so even if we convince millions to vote, they still will be picking the same options.” Ufot responded that there are possibilities outside the current closed-party system and South Africans might have to start over. “Work with the system you have now to make a change until you can create the alternative that allows for voters to have the power and for politicians to act as they are meant to be employees of the masses, who can be fired if they do a bad job,” she said.
Mnguni said church leaders, art leaders and people from all walks of life are willing to learn and teach others about electoral processes. “We are committed to holding legislatures accountable about the electoral reform process that is under way right now. We will be with the Defend Our Democracy launch in the public campaign to educate the voter on why the electoral reforms called for are so important and why Parliament is creating an injury to democracy by dragging its feet, by negotiating in bad faith, by proposing an impossible and illegal bill to amend the current electoral act,” he said.

This article was first published by dailymaverick.co.za

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *