Selfishness biggest enemy of democracy

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IOL ca p15 Voting DONE (40719924) CAPE ARGUS However 79 percent of the adult population agreed that it was the duty of all citizens to vote. File picture: Matthew Jordaan

Voting to sustain one’s privileges won’t help us implement Mandela’s vision of reconciliation, writes Daneel Knoetze.

Cape Town - I’m a white, privileged South African. As such I have for the most part of my life mixed in the social circles of white, privileged South Africans. Such social class allegiances are so naturalised that it seems rather banal to draw attention to them.

But they have to be acknowledged when we discuss what motivates an individual’s decision making, fears and political allegiances.

With a free lifelong subscription to the myths and fears of white South Africa, comes an understanding of the motivation which will drive most of “us” to the polls on election day.

At a bus stop in Cape Town, I recently fell into conversation with a young actress. She’s from Pinelands, owns a flat in Gardens, lives in Upper Woodstock and attends yoga classes in the city centre.

She was aghast at my opinion that South Africa’s elections, and the governments which become constituted through them, were just one of the many means through which privileged people bolstered their position at the top of the status quo.

As with many privileged South Africans, I would imagine, it was not an opinion that she could easily digest at short notice.

(There’s nothing wrong with that. It took months of self-reflection and disparate conversations with people outside my demographic, living in medieval conditions, to develop confidence in that fringe opinion).

Naturally, the young lady’s response was an appeal to her reasons for supporting the ruling party in the province. “I was in Joburg last month. Trust me, you do not want Cape Town to go that way,” she said, adding that Joburg was filthy, chaotic and dangerous by Cape Town’s standards.

Naturally, this “Cape Town” referred to the few urban square kilometres which hug the mountainside (maybe extending to Pinelands, in this instance).

It is natural to make decisions based on what impact they would have on your life, family and immediate surroundings.

Unfortunately, this appeal to our instincts is an old form of selfishness.

It is a mindset which even the downfall of apartheid, that most selfish regime, could not tease out of our collective subconscious.

Today that selfishness may not be as apparent in law and in public – there are no more prison terms for intimate liaisons outside some imagined race group, no more “whites only” boards at the beaches. Yet this is only half a victory.

When it becomes semi-private, in the hatred of the poor espoused in conversations at braais, holiday resorts and social media sites, it becomes more difficult to identify and challenge. Inevitably, this prejudice comes to drive our politics and influence our government.

Counter to our popular myth of an inclusive democracy, my experience as a South African in general, and a news reporter in particular, has reinforced the notion that governments are more accountable to the approval and aspirations of the privileged.

In history, and throughout the world today, this is a generally true. Some may consider it to be a controversial opinion, but it is not.

Selfishness in privilege thus stands as the biggest enemy of inclusive and compassionate democracy envisaged in our constitution and embodied by Nelson Mandela through the muses of forgiveness and reconciliation.

I’m not going to vote on May 7. In so doing, I express my respect for the constitution and my solidarity with many poor, marginalised, pariah people for whom the post-apartheid society has proven to be a realignment of an ancient status-quo.

In South Africa our three-tiered government, again, has been shown to side with the privileged and treat the poor with familiar contempt. No amount of voting, given the current tinge of our party politics, is going to change that.

I understand many readers will disagree and it is not my place to argue against your right to cast a ballot. But if you feel you must, please vote with selflessness instead of selfishness in your heart.

* This is one of a series of articles by the Cape Argus’s editorial staff, looking back at 20 years of democracy.

Cape Argus

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