POWER-POLITICS: DRINKING COFFEE UNDER A BRIDGE

Very little goes unnoticed when you have time in a place where nobody knows your name. Like this one time I went to the local municipality to get a letter confirming that I live where I live.   The line was longer than I expected. Even the citizens standing in line seemed quite surprised to see each other there. As if like me they expected to be the only people in the world who needed proof that they live here. Haawu, nawe? Their eyes seemed to echo.

Proof of address. The paper one needs to do most of anything (legal) in life. To open a bank account. To buy a cell phone. To open an account with any retail store. To book for a driver’s license.  To gain access to social grants. To vote. If nobody knows where you live then it’s a problem. If the electricity (utility) bill does not come in your name from your local municipality – you need a document proving that you live where you say you do.

I didn’t know quite what to expect when I was eventually called in to the councillor’s offices in room 119. “Sit” one of the councillors said to me and three others who’d just been ushered in.  While they were still busy writing letters for others which involved filling out addresses on coucil forms I listened to the conversation the other councillor was having with a fellow citizen. He was leafing through the man’s green barcoded identity document. He had asked him if he was registered to vote.  “Yes” the man dressed in blue said. “There is no sticker in your ID to prove that you are registered”said the councillor paging through the man’s identity document again. “Err… ’ the man stammered “This is a new ID book, I have voted and I am registered to vote” he replied leaning back into his chair.  The councillor didn’t believe him, so he picked up the phone to call someone, presumably the IEC. My eyes, now wide and round were fixed on the councillor. I was curious to hear what he was going to ask. I wanted to know what he was going to say. But by the time he started saying “please check for…” my letter had been completed. And I had to make room for the next person in line.

So naturally I went back, today. I arrived much earlier this time at 8am. I waited with my fellow citizens. There were many women carrying brand new babies and at least three of them came out perplexed.

“The man inside says if you haven’t registered to vote, don’t’ even bother going in” She said re-wrapping the blanket around her now sleeping infant on her back. “I don’t know what they expect us to do” Another man who had been half asleep on one of the chairs woke up, rubbed his eyes and said “vote”?

“Yes” the woman repeated to the air. “The councillor says, if you haven’t registered to vote and if you’re not going to vote in the next election, he’s not going to give you the letter”

“What are we voting for?” the sleepy man asked to no one in particular.

Silence fell between the bodies standing in  line out the corridor  as they shifted their weight from one leg to another, their eyes darting about lazily while fingers fidgeted with worn out personal documents, proving that they are who they say they are, they did what they say they can do. I hoped that someone would respond. Say something else more poetic. But for those standing in line this was not funny. No one there was willing to risk anything for anyone.

After a while a man shouted from the room “Next Four!”

It didn’t take long before it was my turn.

The young councillor stretched his arms and yawned. He was tired.

“Can I see your ID” he asked.

It was between the pages of the book I was reading on Sound Reporting.

“Are you registered?” He asked me.

No. I said.

“Why” he asked

“I haven’t had the time” I responded suddenly feeling unsure about my answer. What was I thinking?

“So you’re not going to vote in the upcoming elections?”

“Yes” I said.

The councillor looked at me with a confused expression.

“Then we have a problem” He said. “What do you mean? “ I enquired my voice flailing.

“We have a problem because in this office, if you’re not registered to vote, we can’t give you a letter. Go try room 116. Not here, we don’t serve people who don’t vote” He said motioning for the next person to come.

I walked out and over to room 116 and it was locked. I asked one of the council workers busy sorting a stack of papers outside the corridors when the office would be open. “I don’t know, maybe they are late” she said. “But you should go to those council offices, they are open” She said pointing at room 119. “I’ve just been there” I told her “but they told me that they cannot help me unless I’m registered to vote. Is this normal practice? Do they only serve people who’ve registered to vote” I asked. “No” She said. It must be because now we’re headed to the elections, maybe that’s why. But they are meant to serve everyone regardless of whether they intend to vote or not”

The experience was disorientating. As if I had been dislodged from something intangible.

As if I now exist off the grid.  While voting in South Africa is not compulsory it is considered an important civic duty and not a right. Just like paying taxes, except you won’t be imprisoned if you don’t vote like you would if you didn’t pay taxes, however your civic rights might be impinged. You might not be served.

This experience got me thinking about what life beyond the vote might look like. I suppose we’ve been fighting for the right to vote, the right to self-government for so long as Africans, oppressed black people and women that we’ve never had time to imagine a world beyond the vote. What could it look like? In a climate where voting can also result in a lack of service delivery regardless of who you vote for.  What Professor Thandika Mkandawire termed “Choiceless-Democracies’ or damned if you do and damned if you don’t  dichotomies  spreading in most African countries see: (Disempowering New democracies and Persistent poverty, 2006).  In some ways I think  voting has become much like handing over your rights (power of attorney) to a political system (party) which disempowers you while claiming to do the exact opposite. This may not be a result of malicious intent  per se on the part of any individual organization but a kind of institutional incapacity which a single individual cannot remedy.  Considering the realities we face in Africa, where we are in South Africa today as we prepare to cast our vote once again next month. I think it’s worth thinking about where we are headed beyond the vote.

Don’t you?

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SA ELECTION 2014: THE CLOSER YOU LOOK, THE LESS YOU SEE.

SA ELECTION 2014: THE CLOSER YOU LOOK, THE LESS YOU SEE.

IEC National Results Centre Pretoria. Pic Demotix.com
IEC National Results Centre Pretoria. Pic Demotix.com

“ The floor plan for this place looks like a trading floor” one  newspaper journalist remarked. We looked around with renewed eyes and yes it did!  He had just come out for a break from doing spread sheets calculating which party is likely to get seats in parliament after the IEC had concluded its “mathematical calculation to allocate seats, a two stage process.”   There are left over seats? “Yes but you can’t use words like that, you have to be careful with how you word this practice – I wanted to say you can “buy” votes but  my newspaper would not allow it. It would be wrong to say that. All that you see on the board amounts to 400 seats in parliament, and the “left-over-seats” will be allocated to parties who are closer to the 45 thousands votes needed for the them to get a seat in parliament, so for example, though AGANG didn’t do that well they might end up having a three seats in parliament according to my calculations.”  He said. I asked the IEC guy in charge of doing the actual calculations to explain the mathematical equation to me. His eyes were bloodshot and he looked extremely tired, he didn’t want to be recorded. “It’s a mathematical calculation” he said as if expecting me to turn away. “We calculate according to decimal points. You know a decimal point… so if a party gets x amount point something, the figure after the point we go by the highest number after he decimal point, x point 6 is higher than x point two for example and we do that in stages” He said. So it’s possible that my vote for a smaller party could end up being allocated to another party in this rotational mathematical calculation system? “No, no that’s not how it works, be patient we’ll give you a press statement, today if you’re lucky” he said walking away. I was still none the wiser.  But here’s the formula, which happens in two stages:

CAN YOU TRANSLATE WORDS INTO NUMBERS?

The Seats in each province are apportioned according to the largest remainder method. In each region, a quota of votes per seat is determined by dividing the total number of votes cast in the region by the number of regional seats, plus one (the IEC determines the number of seats allocated to each province before the election). The result plus one, disregarding fractions, becomes the quota of votes per seat for the region.  To determine how many seats each party will receive in the region, its total number of votes is divided by the quota of votes per seat. This will produce a whole number, which is the number of seats initially allocated by the party, and a surplus. Once this calculation is performed, the sum of allocated seats is obtained. It this total is smaller than the number of regional seats, unallocated seats are awarded to the parties according to the descending order of their remainders. The seat distributions from all provinces are aggregated at the national level to obtain the number regional lists seats allocated to each party.”

THE SECOND STAGE: THE LOTTO

This stage begins with the proportional distribution of all 400 seats in the national Assembly. A quota of votes per seat is determined by dividing the total number of seats in the National assembly, plus one. The result, plus one, disregarding fractions, becomes the quota of votes per seat. To determine the number of seats each party will receive, its total number of votes is divided by the quota of votes per seat. This will produce a whole number, which is the number of seats initially allocated to the party and a surplus. Once this calculation is performed for all parties, the sum of allocated seats is obtained. If this is smaller than the number of seats in the National assembly, unallocated seats in the National Assembly are awarded to the parties according to a descending order of their remainders, up to a maximum of five seats. Any remaining seats are awarded to the parties following the descending order of their average number of votes per allocated seats.  The regional list seats are then subtracted from the total number of seats allocated to that party list, and the remaining seats are filled by the candidates on the national list in the order determined before the election. In the event a party does not present a national list, the seats allocated to it at the national level are filled from its regional lists.

DENUMERACY

“wow” I exclaimed feeling my brain expanding for the first time since I arrived at the IEC National Results Operation Center – “so it’s like gambling” I said, feeling instantly wide awake.  Yes agreed the newspaper journalist “it is”, “in fact” he added “it’s pretty much how corporate shares work, that’s why it’s often hard to for companies to know who gets what and it’s all about rounding it off the next 1000.” I had never heard it explained that way before. “So does that make the process more or less democratic?”

Well it depends said the newspaper guy, for one : smaller parties with 1 to 7 members can’t have a presence in all 53 parliamentary committees which meet on an almost daily basis. And they are more often than not out-voted. Yes their objections will be duly noted but it will not change the outcome of a vote if there is a cohort. You have to be strategic about how you use the parliamentary process in order to be effective.  You have to choose which committee you are likely to be most effective in or have the most impact. When it comes to voting bills into law (one of the jobs of Members of Parliament is to legislate) The DA for example employs various strategies. Thursday is the most important day in parliament, that’s the day when most bills are voted in, and it’s also the day when MPs from other regions want to go home early (for the weekend), so many of them are already on their way out, if 200 ANC MPs go home, and the DA is left with a 100 members who stayed they can in effect vote a bill into parliament or walk-out to delay the process if there is not cohort. Not all parliamentary members need to be in, you must have at least 200 cohorts’ votes for a bill to be voted into law. It’s a tricky game but I love it. From his description it sounded a bit like being back in school or university except this time you re not judged on personal merit but on the political party you belong to. But I guess it’s all the same.

“HISTORY IS A SET OF LIES AGREED UPON” Napoleon  Bonaparte

So there you have it, democracy (majority rule) in a nutshell from a journalist who has been doing this job for 13 years.  This conversation left me animated, so infused renewed understanding I wished I had met him five days before the elections.  It left me wondering what an “actual” multi-party “democracy”, or more or less equal distribution of diverse voices (political parties) and opinions in parliament would look like. If you had five seats per party for example, laws might take longer to be enacted, but would it on the other hand make the process fairer? And more importantly could it still be defined as a democracy? Did you know that political analysts  are yet to agree on what democracy means. The word originates from the late 16th century. From the Greek words demos (people) + Kratia (power/rule) =  Demokratia, which was became the word democratie in French and gave us Democracy in English. Searching for meaning? There is no “majority” in the word democracy. People is plural, but you only need one more person (plus one) to have the word people. Meaning people with power will always rule. How? Power is attractive, people will  vote for someone who  has the means to do something. i.e If one household has  electricity/telephone in the whole village – the majority will automatically vote for them.  When everyone has electricity, then voting becomes about who has more houses with  power. What I got from it? I understood Democracy as a vehicle for capitalism in the same way that Christianity or organized religion is a vehicle for capitalism) No wonder the ANC calls itself a broad church. No church pays taxes, only church goers do and that’s not a moral judgment, it is  just how the system works. The way it is.It’s either you buy into it or you don’t.Does it makes sense? I sure hope so.

TRUST YOURSELF: SA ELECTIONS 2014

Trust Yourself.
Trust Yourself.

I WISH I COULD TELL YOU IT GETS BETTER WITH AGE.

Last night at dinner my teenage brother started giggling and smiling widely exclaiming “ah teenage problems!”  While fiddling on his phone. I looked up from my plate of rice curious to find out what the source of such an “adult” statement was. “You know” he said looking at me with a bright smile. “Yes…?’ I asked quizzically. “You’ve watched enough movies on this subject” he said.  “Teenage crushes?” I guessed.  He nodded in agreement. “I wish I could tell you it gets better with age” I replied with a sigh. “I know. It doesn’t” he replied with confidence while shaking his head from side to side and returning to his mobile phone where the real action was happening.

CRUSHED: CRAZY, STUPID,  LOVE

This conversation is a good analogy for what I have been thinking about for the past few days, months and maybe even years. I think it also serves as a good example for the state we are in as a nation. There’s so much at stake for a teenager with a crush. It’s very awkward, all-consuming, the most important thing in your entire life, and the subject of every conversation or secret diary entries, endless doodles on desks, skin, paper, in fact any surface. I mean a crush is a serious thing. And can get friends, families and teachers even the entire community involved.  But there is one element about crushes which I want to highlight in this conversation. Crushes do by their very nature almost always, with very few documented cases, cast a negative focus on the beholder of the crush, a self-imposed negative  self-image not based in reality.  The person who has a crush on the other does not feel worthy of said object of affection.  The person one has a crush on assumes a Godly, Idolized status in one’s eyes and can never do wrong. They are holy, perfect and indestructible. Even all the things that would make a sober person  a little circumspect  are cute to the one with a crush. Crushes as I am sure we can all remember – can be quite painful and humiliating,  a source of much scorn, embarrassment and jokes at school or at home. It’s generally a painful state to be in – being in a crush. It is simply not sustainable: it’s a place of enormous tension and struggle especially within the mind and heart of person with a crush. Should I tell or shouldn’t I, does s/he love me?  Does s/he love me not?  Should I write to them? say hello? How? When? What will they think? Oh is s/he looking at me? Oh my GOD s/he smiled at me! Oh No it was for someone else etc. Until one finally gets to the conclusion that: “I can’t keep these feelings in anymore!!!”  Something has to be done.

A FORK IN THE ROAD

In order for something to happen (for action to take place), one must make a decision, a choice.  One must choose between knowing (if the crush feels the same way?) or not knowing (deciding not to pursue the issue) remain stagnant.  Sometimes, as in a fork in the road, the choice or decision is by all accounts and purposes not an easy one to make. As in a crush, the decision is daunting and has consequences one invariably does not wish to confront: you discover your crush likes someone else, does not feel the same way about you, considered you for a split second and decided you’re not worth the trouble, doesn’t even know you exist, uses you and discards you or worse they like you too and have been just as afraid as you were to tell you – so what now?  The consequences are so grave they can make one freeze, in a state of panic unable to make a decision either way. So how does one know how to make a decision that would have the best outcome for all concerned, especially you?

CONSULT YOU: WHAT DO YOU THINK?

I have been thinking quite loudly about my decision-making processes over the last decade. And I have made a startling discovery. Many of the decisions I made, I used “someone else”as the reason.  I made someone else take the “fall”, I made someone else the main reason or foundation on which to base that decision. i.e. I came back to SA because I wanted to be with my mother or my mother missed me;  He or she didn’t love me, like me, wasn’t there, didn’t support me, I didn’t have money, it was too hot, my sister said so, they chased me away, she said she needed me etc.  All of the reasons given most probably are valid and true but ultimately it is not my mother or anyone else who made the decision. I chose to come back. I made the decision to book my ticket and took all the necessary steps to make that decision a reality. I simply used my mother as a mitigating/aggravating circumstance among other reasons in my argument. What is startling for me is that I didn’t realize how afraid I had been of making decisions and being personally held accountable to myself for the consequences that came with them.  My mother may have given some advice, provided some support, influenced my decision but she did not by any stretch of the imagination force me or could not force me to leave or to come back. I was the one responsible for all my decisions and consequently the actions and reactions that occurred after that.

But it’s easy to have someone else to blame other than yourself. In fact  it’s comforting to know that there’s another person who will take the fall or stand with you or by your side for decisions you took or failed to take  on your own behalf. It’s harder to say yes, I alone and no one else did it, and I alone and no one else  will accept all the consequences that come with my choices/actions. I stand by my decision. Instead of owning up and being accountable we look for any and every reasonable argument to take the decision process out of our hands. We want to “share” the responsibility of making decisions at best or simply abandon  the responsibility altogether by making someone else in one way or the other make the decision for us  and ultimately be the one(s) responsible for the state we are in.  She said, he did this, they didn’t do that, so I did this because of that.

I based my decisions on what I thought others wanted, desired, or expected of me, hoping to please them. It all came from a genuinely good place, I honestly meant well, and thought I was doing what is “right” and responsible.  However noble and understandable my reasons were/ are, the truth is,   I am, was and always will be the one who decides.

MAKE ME AN OFFER I CAN’T REFUSE.

So I have been speaking to voters during the municipal by-elections held in  KwaMashu KwaZulu Natal this week. I asked them as they walked out of the voting booth – why  it was important for them to vote.   Their initial responses  obfuscated any form of responsibility:

Q: Why was it important for you  vote today:

“I don’t really know why it’s important to vote– but I vote because it’s important, they say it’s important” said one IFP member.

“It’s important to vote because I will get a house, and all my needs will be met” said a mother.

“I’m not really sure why I vote really, because nothing has changed in my life, I just know that I have to vote, why I don’t know” said a pregnant widow

On further probing… Q: Why was it important for you to vote today?

“ I voted because I need a job, I work part-time jobs, sometimes there’s no work for long periods, I am a father with children I have to support, so I’m voting so I can get a job, I vote for those I think will help me” said the IFP member

“ I think if you vote you will have services delivered to you. Like now I’m waiting for a house, I don’t have a house I live in a room with three people so If I vote I stand a better chance to get what I want” said the mother

“ I think I’m voting to promote those already in power to higher position in office, actually that’s what my vote is good for I think” said the pregnant widow.

TRUST YOURSELF.

It is  not always easy to know whether one is making the right decision in a state of a crush. One only knows that a decision must and should be made. When it comes to voting one has the luxury of openly and  without shame  blaming someone  else  for any negative outcome . They become the fall guy, the ones who are ultimately responsible for the x you made on the ballot paper.  So whatever the outcome, whether you get that job, or the house or the person you voted for get’s the position they wanted – they will ultimately forever remain responsible for the state you are in good or bad, because you gave them the power to decide what happens to you. If you get what you were hoping for,  you can be happy because you made the decision that proved to be of benefit to you.  But there is no way of knowing the outcome without making a decision.

What I am learning from this  teenage-adult-in-crush-state  is that they are ultimately necessary, to teach us to learn to make decisions both collectively and individually. You learn with each crush that it will pass, that the passion you feel however all-consuming in the moment  will be history one day, you learn that there will be others who have a crush on you too, and you will also have to break their hearts sooner or later. You learn that a crush is not love, it’s a momentary infatuation that is here today and gone tomorrow. You learn that  love is built on friendships with  people you can actually talk to about all your “crushes”, who will make jokes with you and still look at you like you are magic even when you are in the throes of making a fool of yourself. You learn that love is equal, is a negotiated agreement which is not one-sided. You also learn that crushes are necessary because they can and often do show you what is really important to you. You learn that in the end you are the most important person in your life, and those who are important to you only want you to be happy, to see you being the best of who you are, and you learn that you cannot be the best  of you until you decide for yourself what it is that is ultimately the best for you.  The more crushes you experience in your life  the more you learn, to listen carefully to you,  to carefully consider all available options with openness, you learn to whether the storms (remain still in the noise). You learn that the only thing that is constant is change. You learn also that change – is an important, essential ingredient for any and all  GROWTH to happen.

So trust yourself – you are more than capable of making the best decision for you. Because you know what… only  YOU  can do that.