The best of South African literature
Thami Ka Plaatjie writes to the young generation to inform and remind them of the journey our people have travelled to fight for and gain the right to vote.
On November 9 and 10 last year, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) embarked on the vital national campaign to register voters for this year’s national general elections. Again this process was opened on February 8.
Those targeted included young people who will be voting for the first time and those who may not have registered to vote in the past. The first-time voters are mainly young people who were born after 1994. Their forebears, fathers and mothers, have bequeathed to them the most treasured gift of all, the inalienable right to elect the government of their choice.
The right to vote is an embodiment of the experiences of suffering, toil, anguish, death, dehumanisation and courage of many generations of a people for the desire to be governed with their consent.
I write to the young generation to inform and remind them of the journey our people have travelled to fight for and gain the right to vote. The struggle for the right to vote is a long, arduous and precarious episode of human history. From the time of the emergence of the middle class after the end of feudalism and manorialism to the time of the French Revolution and later to the advent of parliamentary democracy, humanity became seized by a dilemma of who should qualify for the right to vote.
The French are regarded as the first nation to give the right to vote to the male section of its population.
Other European countries such as England, Germany and others followed. In the case of South Africa the first right to vote was promulgated in 1853 when the Cape was given the right to elect its first Parliament. The promulgation of the right to vote was given to all men who resided in the Cape regardless of their race. There was, however, one qualification for this right to vote and that was possession and ownership of property to the value of £25. This right to vote was henceforth referred to as the Property Qualification Franchise.
Because the majority of Africans did not own property equivalent to the required value, save for the few missionary educated elites, a tendency emerged where Africans voted for a white person to represent them in Parliament. This was called the indirect franchise. Later on a certain level of education was added as yet another criterion to qualify to vote. Increasingly the vast majority of the people were excluded from voting.
To express the desire for their people to access the right to vote, Mfengu chiefs, who represented most of the detribalised natives, sought to register 600 of their followers to vote, without success. They were pained by the refusal to enfranchise their own people. Africans formed an organisation called Imbumba yama Nyama, (Solid African Unity) in 1882 in Port Elizabeth with the view to unite Africans and fight for common struggles such as the right to vote. In 1887 another allied movement called the Imbumba Eliliso Lomzi Ontsundu (Union of Native Vigilance Association) was formed, ostensibly to advocate for the African right to vote and they even took most of their cases to court.
The ANC at its inception argued for the extension of the Cape vote to other sections of South Africa.
In 1936 JBM Hertzog abolished the Cape vote and added sections of land to the 1913 land lost by Africans.
Through the struggles waged heroically by our people in all walks of life including trade unions, traditional leaders, academics, intellectuals, churches and shopkeepers, the quest to have a say in the government of the day reigned supreme. Laws of the land were made for us and not with us. Laws of the land were made to enforce and perpetuate our suffering and oppression. When we refused to obey such laws we were killed, imprisoned, exiled, maimed and hanged.
We had learned from other nations that a government that is in power must be put there by the will of its people and that if such is not the case, the struggle for justice, freedom and democracy will unfold. The desire for freedom, justice and liberty cried out for expression and the ANC became a home where the honourable guest called freedom waited impatiently to be embraced by the people of South Africa.
That time came when our leaders faced the apartheid leaders in many hours of negotiations at Codesa. That time came and the guest of freedom was finally ushered in on April 27, 1994 when our people took those first tottering steps towards the polls. When we cast that first vote in our lifetime we did so with tears of happiness at the thought that the struggles of our forebears were not in vain.
That day brought home the full meaning of the sacrifices of our forebears that we must enjoy the full extent of unfettered freedom. When our leaders flanked Nelson Mandela on December 10, 1996 at the Sharpeville Stadium to sign our first inaugural democratic constitution, we witnessed the event with profound excitement and joy that our nation will never again be the object of ridicule in the eyes of humanity. Instead we became a beacon of hope for those nations and peoples who were still trapped in the cycle of oppression.
The outspoken Russian writer, novelist and journalist Yulia Latynina advocates a system of voting called ktitocracy. This, in her view, is the system of voting that will only be used by those who have paid their taxes. This means those who are unemployed and those who have not paid their taxes will not be eligible to vote. On the other hand, our system of voting is called universal suffrage. This is the system of voting that your forebears struggled and fought for. This system is not based on race, gender, economic station or other such distinction that also includes religion and level of education. It is universal because it is applicable to all South Africans who have reached a mature legal age where they can be held accountable by law for their actions.
It is also called One Person, One Vote. The poor and rich stand in the same queue and cast a vote of equal worth. The DA, Cope, the IFP and PAC, the ANC and UCDP, the EFF and UDM must face the same fate before the public jury of our people to earn the right to govern them. The professor and a street sweeper possess the same vote and have an equal chance to influence the government through the agency of their vote.
Public servants in all facets and sectors of our nation need to encourage their own children, relatives, neighbours and friends to use their right to vote. This right is open to all opposition parties because they too must test their support with their followers.
May the best party win.
* Thami Ka Plaatjie is adviser to Minister Lindiwe Sisulu and head of ANC Research.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.