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Our democracy is not without its faults
Ashwin Thyssen
Ashwin Thyssen. Foto: Nardus Engelbrecht

In a recent news article, I considered South Africa and its deepening democratic tradition. I would conclude it saying, “the holiest place in a democracy is the voting booth”.

A day after South Africa’s general elections reflection is needed.

Last year much of my time was spent reflecting on the body of work produced by Cornel West.

West is a black American philosopher who identifies as a democratic socialist. Yet, beyond the neat-and-nice ideological positioning, West is also an activist who consistently calls American society to account for the many and myriad ways it maintains and advances imperialism.

Capturing West’s vision in a mini thesis, I became enthralled by his work — the quest and challenge to “deepen democracy”.

Elections, I believe, are one of the most fundamental tools we have that may deepen our democracy. Now, to be sure, the democratic system is not without its failures and faults. Yet, in the political imagination of South Africa’s populace a democratic order seems the most avowed.

Making our way to the voting booth, a friend was requested to remove her EFF beret. At least implicitly, according to the IEC official her wearing of political garb was influencing other voters. This is quite telling. In a nation founded on the values of human dignity, freedom and equality one must question why such influence is eschewed.

Now, to be sure, the democratic system is not without its failures and faults. Yet, in the political imagination of South Africa’s populace a democratic order seems the most avowed.

I suspect this speaks to an endemic problem. Our democracy is both young and fragile; yet, a democratic system is predicated on an informed population.

READ MORE: 'I believe in people, not political parties'

What was most gripping of my friend’s experience was our confusion. Both her and I, though rather politically active, took the IEC official’s word as correct. Later, however, the IEC website would inform us otherwise.

I suspect that this experience captures much of our collective democratic experience. The greatest challenge I see before us, in electoral processes, is voter education. A quarter of a century down the line, voters remain miscalculated and ill-informed.

The ‘messiah complex’

Om 8 May no less than 48 political parties featured on the ballot paper, vying for electoral power.

Strikingly, though, the ideological positioning of many of the parties seemed rather unclear. One is left to wonder why parties refrained from publishing their manifestos on their websites.

Further, in a nation of immense poverty, questions should be raised on how these parties managed to raise the funds needed to contest elections.

Further, in a nation of immense poverty, questions should be raised on how these parties managed to raise the funds needed to contest elections.

In recent weeks it has oft been said, this is the most contested election. This is indeed true. For months now – I suspect it will continue after the election – we have witnessed various petty court cases, superficial Twitter wars and banal interviews.

Many of these have lacked the necessary analysis, depth and elucidation needed to deepen our democratic tradition.

For some time now I have been rather critical of the cult of personality South African politics prioritises. One may indeed even be fooled into thinking that parties may fall without a certain political leader.

READ MORE:'Religious leaders also lack ethical and moral leadership'

This messiah complex, if you will, remains a danger to an expectant electoral population; especially when many are found searching for one who represents the late former president Nelson Mandela best.

We live in a time where we recognize that the personal is political. Even so, our politicians ought not find themselves among those who advance a superficial democratic tradition. Not only does this enforce a cult of personality but it renders the voice of voters silent.

Finally, it has become commonplace to suggest those who don’t vote ought to not have an opinion on politics. I contend this flies in the face of democracy. All inhabitants of South Africa have a right, moral and civic duty, to formulate an opinion on matters that affect them.

On 8 May I cast my ballot for the third time, at the age of 23 years. I did so at the Stellenbosch town hall, historically a space I could not have entered.

In the voting booth, that most hallowed space, I experienced both the challenge and comfort of generations who have gone before and those to come.

In the voting booth, that most hallowed space, I experienced both the challenge and comfort of generations who have gone before and those to come.

These were the ancestors who had struggled simply to mark a ballot, as though holy write; and the future generations that are yet to experience South Africa as home. On that day, we – the youth supposedly “politically inactive” – deepened South Africa’s democracy.

  • Ashwin Afrikanus Thyssen is currently doing a masters degree in Theology at Stellenbosch University. He comes from Eerste Rivier, just outside Stellenbosch.
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