The Electoral Commission of SA (IEC) plays a crucial role in South Africa’s democracy.
Apart from ensuring that any polls are free and fair, the commission is also tasked with ensuring public confidence in the entire democratic system. If citizens are disillusioned with voting processes, they will start shunning the system.
If that happens and voter turnout declines, then shady politicians and demagogues will take advantage of the ensuing vacuum.
That is why it is puzzling that the commission would decide to take an aggressive, hectoring posture towards voters in a social media message, which it has since deleted.
The message said: “Just remember, if you don’t vote you lose the right to complain. Do the right thing, put an X to it.”
It is not difficult to divine the thinking behind the message: remind people – and scare them if necessary – about their power to make changes in the country.
When the commission started getting heated reaction to the message, it took it down and then, predictably, took refuge behind the silly claim that the words had been “misinterpreted”.
In any form of marketing or advertising (which is what the IEC was doing, in reality – selling democracy), any message which is open to interpretation does not work.
That is because it runs the risk of doing exactly the opposite of what was intended.
In this case, the finger-wagging admonition – while it may be what many political parties are saying in public – is, in itself, an attack on the basic human right of freedom of choice… and deciding not to vote is a choice.
It is a choice which may signal dissatisfaction with the system and is, therefore, a legitimate form of protest.
We hope that the IEC has learned to leave the posturing to the politicians and focus on being our democratic watchdog.