One of the most seminal moments of our historic journey unfolded on the morning of April 27, 1994. It was a day unlike any other; on this day the dream of freedom and democracy was finally made real for millions who joined long queues at polling stations to cast a vote for the first time.
Most will remember being overwhelmed as they walked through the door at their polling station. For many the impact of that momentous day lives on in our collective memory. On that day millions of South Africans cast their vote for a shared future devoid of the division of our painful past.
The words of our first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela on May 2, 1994 probably best capture how we all felt.
“I watched, along with you all, as the tens of thousands of our people stood patiently in long queues for many hours. Some sleeping on the open ground overnight, waiting to cast this momentous vote. This is one of the most important moments in the life of our country. I stand here before you filled with deep pride and joy: pride in the ordinary, humble people of this country.”
Next year countless South Africans will again join long queues to cast their vote in our fifth democratic elections. For those who would be first-time voters, born in those years of transition, these words are new and such images are non-existent except from reviews in the media. These elections are also the first time that young people born in 1994 will be eligible to cast their vote.
On the weekend of November 9 and 10 the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) embarked on a voter registration drive. This was a chance for new voters to register for next year’s elections; it was also an opportunity for people to re-register.
Through the Department of Home Affairs, government was also hard at work during the registration weekend, 403 Home Affairs offices throughout the country were open and officials helped provide South Africans with the necessary support and documentation to enable them to register. Mobile units were also used to reach citizens in areas where there are no offices nearby.
The numbers from the voter registration drive are encouraging, 2.5 million South Africans visited the 22 263 registration stations in the country to either register or re-register. Over a million new registrations were recorded and the number of registered voters aged 18 to 19 tripled from 167 535 prior to the weekend, to 434 370.
The numbers from the IEC show that countrywide more than 24 million people are registered to vote; this represents almost 77 per cent of eligible voters. As a country we need to strive towards 100 per cent of eligible voters to safeguard and consolidate our democracy.
To achieve this, people who have not yet registered to vote, can still do so by making an appointment to register during office hours at the Municipal Electoral Office responsible for the voting district in which they live. Citizens can contact the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) call centre on: 0800 11 8000 for further information.
To register you must be in possession of a green barcoded ID book, a new SMART ID Card or a valid Temporary Identity Certificate. Citizens can continue to apply for registration until the day on which the upcoming elections are promulgated by President Jacob Zuma in the Government Gazette.
By registering to vote citizens can ensure that their voice will be counted and heard. The true test of democracy resides in the ability of every government to enable its citizens to exercise their right of choosing the leadership of their choice.
Voting serves to strengthen our democracy. Regular free and fair national, provincial and municipal elections over the past 19 years have ensured that our democracy continues to flourish and is based on the will of the people.
As democracies mature issues of voter apathy, or people disengaging from the democratic process often becomes a reality. However, in South Africa that is not the case and we must always work hard to avoid this. South Africans have demonstrate that they have confidence in their own democracy as shown by the as 2.5 million people, who visited registration stations across the country earlier this month.
Some South Africans may scoff at elections because in their opinion they offer no real hope for change and they are wrong. Life in South Africa has fundamentally changed for millions of people since we achieved our democracy.
In 1994 life for the majority was a far cry from the thriving, vibrant society we now know. Basic services such as electricity, sanitation and water were non-existent for many. Today, 95 per cent of households have access to running water, 88 per cent to electricity and 85 per cent to sanitation among others. People were subjected to daily humiliation and lived in degrading conditions.
Our democracy changed this, our Constitution and Bill of Rights guarantees that our basic human needs are met.
The fruits of our freedom must be jealously guarded, voting allows all citizens to have a direct say in the way in which the country is governed. Our fifth democratic election is an opportunity for us to once again reaffirm our commitment to a strong democracy. It also coincides with 20 Years of Freedom in South Africa. We call on all eligible South Africans to exercise their democratic right to register and to vote.
Phumla Williams is Acting CEO of the Government Communications and Information System (GCIS)