How to use their vote in the upcoming general election is a question confronting virtually all of my students. Some suggest they won’t vote, that they feel it is pointless. Others insist they want to vote but are anxious that their vote will have little or no impact. Then there are a substantial number who express anxieties over who they will vote for. Hard decisions and difficult choices!
I have responded by suggesting that the size and complexity of the dilemma they are confronting is what makes our democracy meaningful. The very fact that these questions have to be considered in depth is a sign that contemporary issues rather than historical allegiances are increasingly important in the minds of South African citizens. And that’s a good thing for our democracy.
But such an observation doesn’t help anyone reach a decision — least of all myself. I could join a few of my students in staying away, or I could spoil my ballot as called for by the “Sidikiwe! Vukani!” campaign launched by Ronnie Kasrils, Mazibuko Jara, Breyten Breytenbach, Zapiro and others.
I could give up my right to vote. But in my view the citizenship that is expressed through the right to vote comes with responsibilities — I think I have a duty to vote.
And so, like my students, I confront the question of who should I vote for? Having chosen a different party in every election we’ve had, I have no historical allegiance to fall back on. So right now my vote is up for grabs. But it won’t stay that way.
Much to the alarm of at least some colleagues and friends, I find myself quite seriously considering placing my cross next to the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) box. I find myself in conversations in which I am challenged about voting for someone with a less than perfect financial track record, where I am warned about “fascist tendencies”, the dangers of nationalisation and other assorted perils. And of course these are valid issues.
I, however, have slightly different concerns, linked to questions of gender and masculinity, to what Siphokazi Magadla has called a “militarised peace”. Magadla suggests that the “military masculinity” epitomised by Julius Malema is deeply problematic in that it validates understandings of patriarchal masculinity that place “the soldier at the top of the hierarchy in how we think of revolution instead of offering new and interesting ways in which we can think about revolution”. As Magadla notes, such understandings of masculinity have little to offer women and children other than continued high levels of violence. Given the existing levels of South African men’s violence against women and children this must be a concern.
I’d like to add to Magadla’s warning by suggesting that militarised understandings of masculinity have very little to offer men, either. For a start, the disavowal of emotions other than rage and anger, the validation of violence and aggression inherent in militarised understandings of masculinity are bad for men’s mental and physical health. In addition the masculine identities of “soldier” or “warrior” are built around hierarchies of “friend” and “foe” that position all of us as one or the other. The military discourse in which combatants are encouraged to kill for / lay down their lives for their friends and commanders — even where “friends” can be transformed into “enemies” almost overnight — has little to offer the many South African men who aspire to more nurturant, peaceful and mutually respectful masculinities. But it also has to be said that such versions of masculinity are not reserved for the EFF — it was under the ANC’s watch that the police service was transformed into a force. And — as writers such as Jackie Cock have observed — the apartheid regime was second to none in producing a society in which militarised versions of masculinity were rewarded and privileged. It is this legacy that Thought Leader blogger Thorne Godinho recently drew attention to.
In the absence of a compelling alternative I can’t quite abandon the idea of giving Malema and the EFF my vote — despite the reservations outlined above. I have two key reasons. The first is that Malema articulates the demands of two overlapping constituencies — the youth and the unemployed. Intersecting both is race, besides the gender regimes I have referenced already. His is an important voice precisely because he articulates the demands of the economically disenfranchised.
Another reason relates to what Sisonke Msimang has described as the rise of the sycophants. The evidence of Nkandla, Guptagate, Marikana, service delivery, textbooks, milk powder etc suggests that ministers — and indeed ordinary members of Parliament — need to be constantly reminded, prodded and poked into putting the interests of South Africa above party, parochial or personal interests. Malema has a proven track record of asking those awkward questions, of refusing to be silenced, and of keeping stories about the myriad sins and vices of our leaders in the news. He is an important figure in our democracy for that alone. And so it remains conceivable that I might place my cross next to Malema’s face.