Speaking on Monday, the day before his 77th birthday, Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu said that unless the ruling ANC heals its internal divisions, he will not vote in next year’s election. Tutu is well aware that the vote he so much values was won at great cost: the decision not to exercise it must have been a difficult one.
Comment from political parties and other groupings has been strident, with, for example, IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi criticising Tutu’s perceived endorsement of voter apathy, and Azapo-Youth condemning him as not a “proper democrat”.
Such push-button reactions reveal only that the speakers have not fully considered what Tutu has said and have not asked why he finds himself in this position. They apparently forget that he is known and respected nationally and internationally as a moral beacon, as a champion of those most in need, and as an outspoken and honest critic of corruption and of every kind of injustice. Clearly, he’s unhappy with trends in the ruling party and with that party’s inability to stabilise the country. In particular he is distressed by the political in-fighting within the ANC that saps the energy it should be using to govern in South Africa’s best interests.
Of course, a well-functioning democracy depends on the willingness of all its citizens to engage with national policy and with national leaders, and the ballot box is normally the route to such engagement. However, voters disenchanted with the performance of a party they previously supported, have a choice. First, they can choose to vote for another party whose principles are closer to their own. Second, if no party seems entirely suitable, they can use their vote tactically as an expression of disapproval of, in this case, the ANC, rather than in favour of an opposition party. Third, if all parties seem equally undesirable, the voter keen to indicate participation in the electoral process — and disenchantment with the choice offered — may do so by spoiling the ballot paper. Otherwise, like Tutu, the disaffected voter can simply stay away.
Tutu, a passionate democrat, has a right — as do we all — to choose what is appropriate for him. His choice, and his courage, should not be decried, but respected, as the barometer reading it is of the state of affairs in the ANC. The party needs not to bluster but to listen to him and to stop its internal squabbling, and should work towards uniting as a mature political party. Otherwise, it could find that, come election day, some South Africans will vote with their feet, looking elsewhere for leadership or else simply staying at home.