What Happens Beyond the Ballot Box?

I have always believed that one must vote.

But an insightful piece by journalist Ranjeni Munusamy before the elections questioned this hitherto unquestionable logic and I must say – as I saw how many voters chose to spoil ballots or simply stay away – I now question it too.

Choosing to withhold or spoil your vote, is also a democratic choice. Whilst it won’t assist in putting a politician into a seat in parliament, it does send a message that you are gatvol and no party deserves your vote. This year 235,449 people spoilt their vote. Well over 9 million people registered to vote but abstained. This is massive. People are clearly tiring of a system that does the same thing every few years, but for them doesn’t produce the promised change . Surely, we are entering a “post-democracy” era? 

I have also heard it said that if you don’t vote you have no right to complain. Well, this is absurd. Firstly, everyone has a right to complain if they will. But more importantly, if you aren’t going to vote surely you should do something else to contribute to change? I am not a big fan of complaining but if you can’t vote, get involved in other ways. Write letters to your local press explaining why you chose not to vote. Get hold of your local ward councillor and demand accountability for specific needs within your community. Resolve to tackle racism in yourself and others. Get active in your local community: Start a community dialogue in which you discuss how to help your local school to perform better. Join your community block watch. Fix something that’s broken. Pick up litter. This is all doable regardless of who you are and what your situation is.

I did vote and I was excited to exercise that right. But as far as political choices were concerned, I was deeply conflicted. Had I been true to myself I wouldn’t have voted.

The truth is that to vote, withhold or spoil our vote is the end of our role as citizens of a democracy, unless we are prepared to participate for change beyond the ballot box. We can no longer delegate the running of our lives and our country to politicians and bureaucrats. This dance is up, and it didn’t work particularly well in the first place.

We must show up as active citizens every day between elections and contribute in ways that build our people and our country.        

Then we will watch our country rise.

Citizen Crime Fighters

R140 billion. That was the price of un-safety for many South Africans in the 2013/2014 crime reporting period. R70 billion of this was given to the police. The other R70 billion was split between the 9000 registered private security companies. To put this into context the total revenue from tourism during the same period was R93.3 billion. Crime prevention and policing is costing us nearly R47 billion more than our total revenue from tourism. A short assessment of these astronomical figures is that as a nation we are outsourcing our safety to others in staggeringly large sums and – given the crime statistics – the strategy is not yielding the desired results. We will not enjoy significant reductions in crime levels in South Africa simply by delegating responsibility for our safety to others. We have to embrace the fact that one of the main factors standing between us and a safer society is us; the citizens of the country. The evidence for this is compelling; communities that have active and committed citizen neighbourhood safety initiatives generally experience the greatest degree of safety and well-being. This is nothing new. For some time now citizen participation has been preached by many as a critical component in creating safer neighbourhoods. Phoenix just outside Durban – notorious for its high crime rate – is a recent example of this. It is an area which is fast becoming a safe haven due to increased cooperation between the Community Policing Forum (CPF), residents and the police. Omesh Singh – head of the Phoenix CPF – has said that residents are becoming more responsive, working closely with the CPF and police to fight crime. They are reaping the rewards in terms of a safer community. Hillcrest has also seen a reduction in almost every category of crime including residential and non-residential burglary, robbery with aggravating circumstances and hijackings. There are excellent citizen initiatives in that area including an active CPF and an organisation called SACan which works closely with security companies and the police. The same can be said of Durban North and Umhlanga which also saw decreases in most categories of crime and which also has an active CPF, an outstanding Urban Improvement Precinct (UIP) and numerous neighbourhood security initiatives. Now these initiatives work because local residents ensure that they work. We invest time, expertise and money into them in order to play our part in the protecting of our families and assets. The bottom line is that no one will care for us or our stuff like we will; that is why these initiatives are effective. Our provincial police commissioner Mmamonnye Ngobeni echoed these views when she said the following: “Police won’t win this war working alone. Crime affects the quality of life of every citizen of this province. Reducing crime and building safer communities must be a priority for all of us. To make this happen, crime prevention must be initiated at community level.” The second element we have to embrace in terms of our participation in the creation of safer communities is that we must work with the police and not against them; reporting crime regardless of who committed it; supporting and encouraging the individuals within our local force; creating a society that respects and honours the police. Human beings do not respond well to being stereotyped and boy do we stereotype our police in South Africa: “They are all corrupt!” “They are all incompetent!” “There is no point in reporting crime!” There is undoubtedly some truth in some of these judgements, but the reality is that the there are many excellent cops and the more we perpetuate the negative stereotypes, the truer they become. We need to call the best out of people even when the best is not always in evidence. This causes the spirit of the person to rise to the challenge. Thirdly – we need to create an environment in which lawfulness flourishes. I have written and spoken about this ad nauseum but whilst we continue to accept and perpetuate a culture of recklessness on our roads, of lack of compliance with laws and by-laws; with tolerance for litter and other forms of social decay – we will not significantly reduce levels of crime. Finally – don’t expect community safety initiatives and personal pledges of lawfulness to reduce crime overnight. It takes time and effort to see real societal change. We must each take personal responsibility and encourage others to do the same. We must be prepared to put up our hands and get involved. If we already have community safety initiatives we should learn from others who are doing better or who are more established than we are. Community and individual involvement are the secret weapons in an effective “war on crime”. The R140 billion will only begin to work to its true value when the citizens take responsibility. This column is dedicated to the memory of 17 year old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered.