So, I have registered to vote in South Africa for the first time. Who, then, shall I vote for?
Sometimes the simplest questions are unbearably difficult to answer. The easy part is, of course, entering the polling booth, a domain situated behind a veil of secrecy, and enact perhaps the most atomistic ritual in liberal democratic society — and cast my vote. Nobody else would know which way I cast my vote. I would walk away keeping my vote a secret, having betrayed my fellow citizens. After voting I step, comfortably and conveniently back into a world of answers provided. There are no longer any questions. At least this seems true about South Africa, today. Senses of responsibility, of accountability of community of spirit, of hope and endeavour, of change and of “making a difference” have been dissolved into a single stain on our tattered cloth. There is only one answer to all South Africa’s problems … our vote must endorse that answer. Affirm it.
If one has a deep-seated commitment to democratic social change and transformation (meaningful transformation; not that self-satisfying, end-in-itself reproduction of mediocrity) the sense of a need to vote, a need to effect some kind of meaningful progressive change — reduced to that simple atomised act of voting — can be as overwhelming as any of the great decisions one makes in life. Mediocrity, Chinua Achebe wrote, destroyed “the very fabric of a country as surely as a war — ushering in all sorts of banality, ineptitude, corruption and debauchery”. Mediocrity, banality, ineptitude, corruption and debauchery cannot be expelled behind the polling booth’s veil of secrecy, but it can be shored-up.
The way is see it, there is a greater challenge that one faces in elections, especially the one that approaches us; the belief that what we have is the best there has been, the best there is and the best that we ever will have. In this sense the crisis of the next election is the crisis of memory; how it weighs on today, and maybe tomorrow. We are expected to look backward, while we live life forward. While there is nothing terribly wrong with that Janus-faced existence, it is a problem when we our acts and agency, our expectations and future are all tied to a memory that is prepared and packaged, like fast-food, and presented to us, uncritically, notwithstanding the fact that, as Eric Hobsbawm most eloquently explained, history, remained under-construction. None of this matters, because it is no longer our own memories that matter. What matters is the memory, and the history, of the dominant group. As things stand, our history and humanity have, first, been redefined — the original exemplar (our lived world) is replaced by the example (what we are told our lived world was) — and we have a future, living forward, but driven onward by falsity and bad faith.
This numbing of the critical faculties is what elections tend to do to us. In South Africa, this numbing is applied all the way down, for the way in which the dominant group holds a powerful grip on almost all the institutions of society — from the state, to the electoral machinery, the legislature, academic institutions and, inevitably, it seems for, now, the popular media.
The question remains, who shall I vote for, in that most incidental of institutions that flatter to deceive us in believing we have a common destiny, that we are a community, a society, but expects us to think, and act, as atomised beings. The polling booth.
My memories have not been harnessed by the forces that govern us. They remain, as always, my own. However untrustworthy memory may be, of this I am sure. Living life forward, the future has to be different, better than the past that we were given, or that we believed we lived, without being told what happened by leaders who want little more than the power, the authority and the pecuniary and acquisitive gains that stem from these.
Elections can be seductive. I am not sure that they always produce the right outcomes. They are, it seems to me, not about justice or even fairness …