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.