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Not voting harms our hard-earned democracy

The 2016 Local Government Election presented a myriad of reasons and opportunities for us, the citizens, to go out in large numbers and vote for candidates of our choice, writes Nkosikhulule Xhawulengweni Nyembezi.

The impressive improvement in voter registration numbers and voter turnout in many areas across municipalities demonstrates the importance South Africans attach to exercising the right to vote and the right to stand for office.

Not voting serves no purpose but harms our hard-earned democracy and freedoms in the end. We should all, from election observers to election candidates and voters, be proud of our collective efforts that made it possible for South Africa to conduct yet another free and fair elections.

When we look back in the history of democratic elections in South Africa, we should also remember the last election by its uniqueness as seen in the record number of independent candidates, at 855, in comparison with the 754 we had in 2011.

They make up a segment of an unprecedented record number of 63,654 candidates, representing an 18 % increase.

Admittedly, while voters have an interest in having a wide field of candidates from which to choose, the right to vote may not be taken to include an absolute guarantee that every voter should have the candidate of their choice represented on the ballot.

And so it bodes well for our democracy to realise the healthy competition for public office as that voters in provinces such as the Western Cape and Limpopo were handed an A3 size ballot paper with a long lists of candidates to choose from.

This is we must appreciate as a sign of robust candidacy in the form of the plurality of contesting views that will be carried through to the new municipal councils across the country.

Given the diverse views expressed in election manifestos presented for this election, voters have again used their vote to strengthen accountability and political control, give legitimacy to political power, participate in processes that will lead to peaceful change in power, and to enhance political stability.

In the election campaigns this has manifested in the diversity of issues candidates canvassed with local communities, including community-specific issues that are often overlooked by political parties.

As such, election debates involving independent candidates demonstrated that independent candidacy alone succeeded in a unique way in elevating the relevance and potency of a diversity of views in the eyes of voters.

This was made possible because they spoke in their capacity as potential office-holders and not merely as the average lay citizens.

They were invited to discuss their views on radio talk shows and other platforms that gave them audience of various groups that had up to that time never heard of them or their views.

This linkage resonated more generally with witnessing the freedom of expression in actions as it highlighted that the right to free speech , this election served not only the speakers interest but also separately concerned the interest of the audience in hearing what was being said in order to make informed choices at the polls.

In short, by contesting alongside political parties, independent candidates opened up a variety of communication possibilities that are not usually available to even the most diligent of picketers or the most loyal of party followers.

We can expect that those who won seats will help produce municipal councils that not only respect the opinions of the nation, but are able to challenge abuse of power through robust discussion.

The members of the new municipal councils must be able to speak their mind, not just to like-minded audiences and entrepreneurs, but also in the face of opponents often found in the elite in control of party caucuses.

Their value in this election is in contrast with adverse statements against them made by several political party leaders since the beginning of the election period, accusing them of being opportunistic and self-serving.

Surely, these adverse statements are irreconcilable with an understanding of the constitutionally protected right of eligibility for public office as a basic right rooted in citizenship.

Surely, again, everyone including political party leaders must embrace the importance of an existence of a political environment in which the right to stand for public office and the right to vote for candidates of our choice are enjoyed equally by all citizens, including those who have no political party affiliation.

In fact, the time has come to embrace independent candidacy, not only in local government elections, but at all levels of government.

To do so will be in recognition of the fact that the right to candidacy creates a presumption in favour of inclusiveness, such that restrictions on eligibility as is the case in the current electoral system constitute an unfair and unjust limitation that is challengeable in our constitutional democracy.
Also, to do so will help our democracy do away with political party leaders who demonise independent candidates as individuals who are after a selfish opportunity for self-development that is analogous to the right to choose a career.

The increasing presence of independent candidates in this election also tells us that there already exist a growing crop of young politicians who will start off serving at local government level and are then prevented from logically graduating to the provincial and national spheres of government because of their non-affiliation to a political party.

By introducing electoral system reforms to include independent candidates at all levels, we can ensure that the country is not robbed of future leaders on account of their non-affiliation to a political party.

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