Give ANC a sign - but without boycott
Fred Khumalo: With the date for the country's next municipal elections looming large on the horizon, there is a growing rumble of voices about the efficacy of the elections in South Africa.
Central to this disenchantment are questions such as: "Why should we continue voting for local representatives if we don't even know where they live?"
It's become a predictable ritual: in the build-up to the election, the politicians will arrive in a cloud of dust at impoverished communities, driving their posh cars.
They will roll up their sleeves as they dish out food parcels, and unfurl their latest version of an election manifesto: promises, promises, promises.
But once the votes are safely in their pockets, the politicians disappear in yet another cloud of dust and retire to their splendiferous houses in suburbs the electorate never even knew existed.
Day in and day out, elected public officials are found with their hands in the till, and little is done to those hands. So they continue to pilfer with impunity.
Instead of being arrested or dealt with harshly, the officials are transferred to other chambers of government.
Why should we go to the polls only to have relatives of elected representatives or other politically connected individuals bagging all the service-delivery tenders? Especially if these individuals fail to deliver the promised services such as refuse collection, the supply of running water and proper sanitation, the tarring of roads, poverty alleviation, or creating an environment conducive to job creation?
With the advent of democracy in 1994, the country's talking heads spoke optimistically and energetically about a new dawn, the ushering in of a political environment that would encourage accountability of those we put in public office. But this spirit of optimism was short-lived, as those hopes for an accountable regime waned, especially when it came to local government.
The sporadic outbursts of service-delivery protests countrywide are testimony to the unhappiness at grass-roots level.
The conflagration has been so fierce in various parts of the country that there were even comments by some senior government officials that there was "third-force" involvement - a ridiculous suggestion that the protests were not expressions of legitimate grievances, but part of a campaign by those who would embarrass the government.
Most recently the people of Ermelo, Mpumalanga, were engaged in running battles with the police after taking to the streets and using burning tyres to barricade roads. They attacked the houses of local councillors in an unbridled expression of rage.
The service-delivery protests have reached such intensity that some critics have averred these were the early stages of a revolt tantamount to the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia and the civil disobedience that swept Jordan, Egypt and now Libya.
Everyone, from businessman and commentator Moeletsi Mbeki, to Jacob Zuma's spokesman Zizi Kodwa, has waxed lyrical about South Africa's own "Tunisia moment". It has been said that we are teetering on the brink of a Tunisia-type revolution, while those who differ with this sentiment have argued that we had our "Tunisia moment" when we installed democracy in 1994. Needless to say, some of the comments about South Africa's imminent "Tunisia moment" have been deemed alarmist or counter-revolutionary.
But what can't be disputed is that the clamour of unhappy voices is growing.
Equally remarkable is a relatively new but burgeoning school of thought which holds that the dictatorship of the ruling party can only be challenged by the electorate staying away from the polls.
Indeed, some 60 branches of the ANC have been reported to have vowed to punish their own party by boycotting the local government elections. These expressions of anger have been heard before but, when the elections arrived, many people still voted.
It does not demand a rocket scientist's intelligence and analytical skills to see why the masses are chafing: while the wheels of the service-delivery vehicle are turning ever so slowly - if at all! - elected officials are whizzing around the poor settlements they should be servicing, in their latest expensive wheels - rubbing salt into the festering sore of neglect.
The arrogance of the ruling elite is astounding, make no mistake.
But does this justify a call for the boycott of elections? It's an emotive decision to make, but I don't think we should err on the side of boycotting.
Withholding one's vote would be like spitting in the face of those who died in the fight against apartheid, and those who sacrificed the most productive years of their lives for the rest of us to have the right to vote. It would be retrogressive and irresponsible.
Voting is about principles. Principled engagement does not always bear quick results. We are in for a long haul. Principled engagement is about our commitment to the deepening of democracy.
Democracy, by its nature, is about contestation, and not the shutting down of debate and spaces for public engagement.
If the electorate must punish the ruling party, as some suggest, there is a plethora of parties to choose from. And the political space is open for other parties to mushroom and blossom, if the country feels so strongly about the lack of delivery by the ANC.
The growing vocal agitation for the election boycott is, sadly, based on the assumption that we have explored and exhausted all avenues when trying to express our collective will.
It is also based on the shaky premise that we are a fully fledged democracy. We are not. We are still crawling. We still have to explore democracy in all its manifestations - and use all avenues to find expression of our democratic will.
Apathy will not nurture our democracy. Apathy breeds bitterness and hopelessness. Giving the polls a wide berth will be like cutting off our collective nose to spite our face. A myopic enterprise indeed.