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When a ‘spoil-your-vote’ campaign might be effective

The Sidikiwe! (We are fed up!) campaign has been launched, calling on potential voters – particularly among those who might have supported the ruling ANC in the past – to repudiate the ANC in its current form in the forthcoming elections. The leaders of the campaign – including a former minister and deputy minister in previous ANC administrations – have made it clear that it is not a “no-vote” campaign; they are urging people to get to the polls to spoil their ballots or to vote for smaller parties.

Inevitably, the ANC’s spokesman, Jackson Mthembu, has dismissed the campaign as “counter-revolutionary” and “reactionary”, epithets that the ruling party reserves for critical voices on the left, or from within its own (or former) ranks, while still persevering with the tired “racist” epithet for critical voices on the right, or for criticism (no matter how legitimate) generally emanating from white South Africans or institutions primarily led by white people.

Yet, it is not only the Sidikiwe campaign, but a range of other voices in social movements, ad hoc service delivery protests and new political parties that are increasingly expressing their “gatvol” opposition to the ANC. In 20 years, the ruling party has presided over growing inequality so that South Africa is now one of the most unequal societies in the world; more than 23-million people still live in poverty; those protesting against their living conditions are shot and killed; vast quantities of public resources are allocated corruptly to leaders of, and others associated with the ruling party; and state institutions are abused to promote and defend party and factional interests, thereby undermining our nascent democracy.

If by “revolutionary” is meant the radical transformation of our economic, political and social structures to benefit all our citizens rather than an elite few, then given its track record over the first two decades of post-apartheid South Africa, it would be reactionary and counter-revolutionary to vote for the ANC! As for being “racist”, it is only those who choose to be blind in the ANC who will not admit that it is overwhelmingly black African people who remain poor, who lose their jobs, who are killed in protests, who die prematurely from preventable diseases, all huge indictments of a “liberation movement” that promised so much for all, and has delivered only for a few. It is as if by virtue of having been a black liberation movement and now a black government that the ANC assumes that it has greater legitimacy in abusing black people and deserves greater patience and understanding for its failures when in fact, the opposite is true i.e. that precisely because its leaders should know – experientially and viscerally – the suffering of the majority of the people in this country, its efforts and resources should be spent overwhelmingly and tirelessly in transforming the lives of these citizens for the better!

What, indeed, is revolutionary about voting for the ANC in its current form? Pray, tell!

It is precisely because of growing disillusionment with the ANC that many are seeking alternatives in the forthcoming elections to express such disillusionment. While there are other ways to express disillusionment throughout the years between elections, if the elections are to be used for this purpose, then voting for a party other than the ANC is the most effective option. Many have pointed out that in a system of proportional representation, it does not matter how many votes are spoilt; parliamentary seats are divided on the basis of legitimate votes cast for a party.

At the last election, there were already those who broke away from the ANC to form COPE as an expression of their opposition to the direction being taken by the ANC at the time. In that election, there were nearly 240 000 spoilt ballots, and COPE won just over 1.3-million votes, with the ANC still winning 65.9% (nearly two-thirds) of the legitimate votes. If the COPE voters had decided to spoil their votes instead, there would have been just over 1.5-million spoilt ballots, but the ANC would then have won 71% of the legitimate votes, increasing their parliamentary majority significantly and giving them the power to pass laws and to change the Constitution as they wished.

Spoiling one’s vote might be a cathartic personal expression, but it makes little difference in denting the majority of the ANC or sending any substantial signal to it.

The circumstances in which a spoilt ballot might make a difference would be if our system allowed for the percentage of spoilt ballots to be reflected in the relevant number of empty parliamentary seats. In other words, if 10% of the votes were actively spoilt in a ballot form option that provided for “None of the above parties”, then there would be 40 (out of 400) empty seats in Parliament, and parties would be allocated the percentage of votes won out of the remaining 360 seats. Such an option would allow the electorate to express their rejection of the available party options, to serve as a daily reminder to those in Parliament of a constituency that is watching their actions and even to save money on parliamentary seats!

Such a system might also allow for the funds saved to be allocated to civil society organisations to take up those seats in Parliament when policies and laws relevant to their work are being debated; they may participate in the debates, while the elected parties would ultimately vote on the issues at hand. Alternatively, these seats could be reserved for Grade 11 and 12 learners who may not yet be of voting age, but so that parliamentarians would be reminded of those whose futures they are dealing with.

Until then, we have to deal with the hand we’ve been given, which is an election in just over three weeks within our current system. In this twentieth year of our democracy, we should use our vote and celebrate our democracy by voting for an opposition party that in our view best supports the progressive transformation of our society and so send a resounding signal to the ruling party that they no longer represent the visionary liberation ideals that many of us had hoped would be reflected in the lives of at least the majority of our citizens by this time.


  • Mike van Graan is the executive director of the African Arts Institute and is an adviser to Arterial Network, a pan-African network of artists, cultural activists, creative enterprises and NGOs active in more than 40 African countries. He is also an award-winning playwright.