Hailed as the cornerstone of democracy, voting has the potential to shape societies and influence the direction of a nation. While affluent urban communities seem to grasp the significance of voting, there exists a stark contrast in participation from marginalized segments of the population, particularly the working poor and the unemployed masses.
This non-participation has real consequences for our democracy, enabling parties with self-interests to wield disproportionate influence. The rise of far-right racist white parties in recent elections serves as a stark reminder of this disparity. To combat this trend and foster a more equitable political landscape, it is imperative that all citizens, regardless of socioeconomic status, recognize the transformative power of their votes.
In urban and upper-middle-class communities, the importance of voting is inculcated from an early age, leading to high voter turnout during elections. This dedication to civic duty allows these groups to exert a significant influence on the political process, sometimes overwhelming the voices of the marginalized.
By harnessing the power of their numbers, those who understand the value of their vote can sway policies and decisions in favour of their interests. This disparity was evident in the 2019 and 2021 elections, where a far-right racist party capitalized on the commitment of its supporters, resulting in a substantial electoral presence despite its narrow focus and controversial agenda.
The success of the far-right racist parties is symbolic of the consequences of differential engagement. This party, advocating for the interests of a minority, has managed to secure a substantial parliamentary presence by rallying its supporters to the polls. While some may find their policies objectionable, their effective mobilization strategy highlights the potential power of even a relatively small number of committed voters.
This case study underscores the importance of broadening voter participation to prevent fringe parties from disproportionately shaping the political landscape.
Commonly held beliefs that the two so-called biggest political parties maintain overwhelming popularity is partially rooted in the low voter turnout of the unemployed masses and the working poor. These parties do not necessarily command the broad support they appear to have. A lack of political participation from marginalized segments of society creates an artificial numerical advantage for these parties, sometimes compromising the representation of the people’s interests. By increasing the participation of young people, the unemployed masses and the working poor, the political landscape can be more reflective of the nation’s diverse needs and aspirations.
A stark contrast exists between how election day is perceived and treated in townships compared to predominantly white affluent communities. This disparity not only highlights the importance of voting but also underscores the urgent need for equitable voter education.
In many townships, election day often seems to blend in with the usual activities of daily life. It’s seen as just another holiday to unwind and engage in social activities. Meanwhile, in predominantly white affluent communities, a different narrative unfolds. Residents prioritize voting as a civic duty, an opportunity to elect representatives who will champion their interests, and a means to effect real change in their lives.
The consequences of this disparity are evident when we compare the outcomes from these two groups. Affluent communities, by actively participating, have succeeded in electing officials who represent their interests. This is evident in the development and overall quality of life in their neighbourhoods.
However, the story is different in townships, where an alarming number of residents choose not to participate in the electoral processes. These communities, often bearing the brunt of a dysfunctional government and enduring socioeconomic challenges, would stand to gain the most from an engaged electorate. The question is: Why do many people abstain from voting when their future is at stake?
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An example of the heightened importance that some white people and corporations place on voting is evident through the observation of flight prices to Cape Town during election day. These prices often decrease, enabling Cape Town residents living outside the city to return home and exercise their right to vote. Moreover, individuals travel considerable distances, such as from Limpopo to Cape Town, to ensure their voices are heard. This stands in contrast to the situation in townships, where even a short walk to the polling station sometimes appears to be a challenge. This contrast raises valid concerns about the level of commitment in different communities.
However, it’s essential to acknowledge that the blame cannot be solely placed on the shoulders of the disenfranchised. Rather, the absence of prioritized voter education programs has left many people unaware of the transformative potential of voting. Voter education initiatives tend to gravitate towards affluent neighbourhoods, inadvertently neglecting those who stand to benefit immensely from the power of their ballots.
The discrepancy in voter education is a deliberate oversight, fuelled by the understanding that an active electorate in townships could dramatically shift the political landscape. This highlights the need for targeted programs that focus on civic and voter education within townships. These programs should empower residents with the knowledge of their rights and the mechanisms through which their collective voice can enact change.
Levelling the playing field for voter education would not only empower residents in townships to exercise their civic duty but also contribute to a more equitable and inclusive society. When citizens, regardless of their socioeconomic background, engage in the democratic processes, the resulting decisions are more likely to reflect the diverse needs and aspirations of the entire population.
The idea that voting holds no power is a fallacy that ultimately serves to perpetuate the status quo. A poignant reminder lies in the history of South Africa’s democratic transition. The pivotal elections of 1994 led to the downfall of the oppressive National Party and the dismantling of Apartheid. Voting was the instrument through which the nation embarked on a new path of inclusivity and freedom. Forgetting this historical reality undermines the potential for change that each vote carries.
The assertion that one is uninterested in politics is a self-deception that belies the inescapable role of politics in shaping individual lives. As stated by political scientist Harold Laswell, politics fundamentally determines “who gets what, when, why, and how.” For those grappling with unemployment, unaffordable education, inadequate healthcare, and basic needs unmet, politics remains a force that shapes their circumstances. Ignoring this reality hampers the ability to bring about meaningful change, reinforcing the very conditions that prompt the sentiment of powerlessness.
In conclusion, the importance of voting cannot be overstated. The disparities between how election day is approached in townships and affluent communities underscores the urgent need for comprehensive voter education. Bridging this gap is a step towards building a more just and equitable society. By investing in outreach programs that focus on civic education in townships, we can ensure that the power of the ballot is harnessed by all, leading to a brighter future for our nation.
The power of voting is not a privilege exclusive to certain segments of society; it is a fundamental right that empowers all citizens to shape the trajectory of their nation. While urban and affluent communities may have internalized this, marginalized segments must also overcome the narrative of disengagement. To build a truly inclusive democracy, all citizens must recognize the potential of their ballots.
~ written by Vuyolwethu Zungula, MP & President of African Transformation Movement.