Celebrate democracy with your right to vote

Phumla Williams

South Africa will hold its fifth democratic national and provincial elections on May 7. These elections will be historic as they coincide with the anniversary of 20 Years of Freedom. At the same time young people born in 1994 will be able to vote for the first time. 

Those of us fortunate enough to have voted in the first democratic election on April 27, 1994, will never forget the day that changed a nation. Many of us will remember the harrowing accounts of elderly and frail people collapsing in line while they waited to cast their vote. 

There was a palpable sense of history in the air; every person who stood for hours in the queue patiently waiting to cast their vote did so knowing that South Africa would be forever changed.

On May 2, 1994, shortly after the votes were counted, Nelson Mandela spoke of the miracle of our first free and fair election.

“The calm and tolerant atmosphere that prevailed during the elections depicts the type of South Africa we can build. It set the tone for the future. We might have our differences, but we are one people with a common destiny in our rich variety of culture, race and tradition.”

Twenty years on from this ground-breaking moment, South Africa has changed and we are a nation with a common destiny at peace with ourselves and the world. We are a rapidly maturing democracy that has held several free and fair national and provincial elections, as well as municipal elections since 1994.

Statistics from the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) show that countrywide more than 25 million voters are eligible to cast their ballots on May 7. This represents 80.8 per cent of potential voters. This is an increase of just over 2.2 million voters (9.5 percent increase) when compared to the 2009 national and provincial elections.

Gauteng has the highest number of voters with just over six million, followed by KwaZulu-Natal with 5.1 million, the Eastern Cape with 3.2 million and the Western Cape with 2.9 million. Between them these four provinces make up almost 68 percent of all voters.

To vote in the elections you must be in possession of a green barcoded ID book, a new smart ID card or a valid Temporary Identity Certificate. Citizens can only vote if they have registered to vote and if their name appears on the voters’ roll.

South Africans who live abroad or are abroad on election day may cast their vote April 30  if they are registered voters and informed the IEC by March 12 of their intention to vote.  

Special votes will be cast on May 5 and 6, and are typically cast by the elderly, people living with disabilities and those who are unable to be at their voting districts on election day.

As the election draws near, most South Africans will undoubtedly cast their mind to voting for a party of their choice.  The act of voting ensures that the voices of citizens are heard and counted.

A vital part of any democracy is to guarantee that voting takes place in an atmosphere which is considered free and fair. The government, through the Justice, Crime Prevention and Security Cluster, has ensured that all measures are in place to ensure a safe and secure election.

While briefing the media on the state of readiness, the Minister of Police Nathi Mtethwa emphasised that: “The government will not tolerate any form of violence, intimidation, incitement, public disorder, vandalism, or intolerance. “We will not allow anyone to derail the elections or prevent anyone from exercising his or her constitutionally enshrined right to vote.” 

Worldwide, the issue of voter apathy is often encountered as democracies mature. However, with over 80 percent of illegible voters registered this is not the case in South Africa. In fact, all indications are that this will be a keenly contested election.

The government is, however concerned with the “Vote No’’ campaign which is advocating that people spoil their ballots. Although our democratic process allows people to spoil their votes, this is not in keeping with the spirit of democracy.

When considering our history, the act of voting for a party of one’s choosing cannot be overstated. For hundreds of years this most basic right was denied to the majority. The right to vote only came about because of the selfless sacrifice of millions of patriots who refused to lie down in the face of apartheid tyranny.

We owe it to the legacy of these heroes of our democracy to go out in numbers and to exercise our hard-won democratic right to vote.

Phumla Williams is Acting CEO of the Government Communications and Information System (GCIS)

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