The Thoroughly Democratic Logic of Refusing to Vote

By Richard Pithouse · 3 Apr 2009

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Picture: Abahlali baseMjondolo
Picture: Abahlali baseMjondolo

Poor people’s movements like the Landless People’s Movement in Johannesburg, the Anti-Eviction Campaign in Cape Town and Abahlali baseMjondolo in Durban and Cape Town, along with a host of smaller community organisations around the country, have announced their refusal to vote in the coming election. 

This is not a new phenomenon.  In the 2004 national elections, activists in the Landless People’s Movement were beaten, arrested and tortured after they announced an election boycott under the slogan ‘No Land! No Vote!’.  In the 2006 local government elections, Abahlali baseMjondolo joined the boycott and changed its slogan to ‘No Land! No House! No Vote!’ They were also subjected to all kinds of unlawful and violent state repression.

Over the years community organisations and poor people’s movements have resolved to boycott elections for different reasons. Some people felt that although the ANC had lost its way they could not support another party. They hoped that a public boycott by people whose longstanding and loyal support for the ANC had been taken for granted might shock the party into taking them seriously. If this were achieved, they would be glad to resume voting for the ANC. 

In other cases, a decision to boycott an election was motivated by the recognition that while many political parties are willing to issue general and abstract statements of support for the poor, no major party has been willing to offer active and concrete support to poor people’s struggles when they are in systemic conflict with elite interests. For instance, people living in shacks often arrived at the sobering realisation that all the parties are committed to hounding them out of the cities.  In a situation like this, voting provides little more than the hollow right to choose your oppressor. Some people who have refused to vote under these sorts of circumstances may reconsider their position if there was a credible party that was willing to take an active side with the concrete struggles of poor. 

There is also a deep popular hostility to ward councillors and their ward committees. Ward councillors have been the most common target of the many thousands of protests since 2004 and this fact is often missed when these protests are all labelled as ‘service delivery protests’. There are times when this label is a useful description for protests but it is not appropriate when they are explicitly directed against top down political control of local politics by ward councillors.

Many grassroots activists were part of the bottom up popular politics of the 1980s and remain committed to a politics of popular empowerment. They are determined to refuse top down political control by ward councillors. Their strategy is to refuse to vote for ward councillors and to, instead, build up their own organisations to the point where they can bypass ward councillors and negotiate directly with the state. But some of the people who are militant in their refusal to either vote for ward councillors or to accept their authority do see electoral politics in a different light when it is at the national level. These sentiments have sometimes been strengthened by the fact that Zuma’s election campaign has, shrewdly, been extremely critical of ward councillors. For others the idea that there is more at stake at the national level has been strengthened by concern at the ethnic character of some of the mobilisation around Zuma.

An election boycott can also be a compromise strategy when the first priority of a movement or organisation is to act collectively but it finds that party politics will be divisive because there is no agreement on which party to support. When party politics has taken on an ethnic aspect abstention can be a collective refusal to allow ethnic politics to divide a political project founded on a common situation rather than a common ethnicity. 

But some organisations have decided to reject electoral politics as a matter of principle. The logic here is that activists have mobilised behind a long line of politicians only to see them ascend beyond their reach while the people that voted them into relative opulence remain in life threatening poverty. This has led some to conclude that mobilising behind an individual or party always results in a disempowering politics of representation that turns people into politicians and then separates them from ordinary people. These activists argue that they are finished with rallying behind someone who promises to represent them in the kingly realm of the mighty politician and are now determined to build their own collective power from the ground up. They have made it clear that they intend to use ongoing mobilisation to subordinate whoever seeks to represent them to the direct expression of popular power for and by ordinary people.

Whether or not one accepts any of the logics behind a collective refusal to vote, the fact is that election boycotts are a perfectly legal strategy that does not threaten the rights of people who wish to vote. We need to be very clear that when the state responds to public refusals to vote by banning marches, assaulting activists, arresting them on trumped up charges and even subjecting them to torture it is the actions of the state that are criminal and anti-democratic.  Anyone that calls themselves a democrat is obligated to recognise this fact and to act on it with vigour. 

We also need to be clear that a refusal to vote, whether it is a short-term tactical intervention or a general political principle, is not a refusal of democracy. On the contrary it is the organisations that have done the most to rebuild and defend popular democratic practices in our society that have resolved to boycott this election. And when we’re told that this sort of dissent is unacceptable because people died for this democracy we need to remember that the idea of democracy that inspired the popular struggles against apartheid was large and generous enough to make plenty of space for the sort of active and fractious day to day political engagement by ordinary people that is deeply threatening to elites. We also need to remember that, across space and time, elites brought to power by the struggles of ordinary people have usually moved very quickly to diminish these struggles by reducing democracy from a day to day popular practice to the altogether more anorexic conception of occasionally voting for one of the elite groups contending for state power.

There’s no doubt that events preceding this election have animated millions of people who will go to the polls with all kinds of political passions. But it’s also true that many of the people who are most committed to the day to day struggles to realise the full promise of our democracy in the everyday lives of ordinary women and men will spend election day sitting at home, or in a community meeting, or perhaps in the holding cells of their local police station.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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2 Apr

The Problem With Voting

The current system of representation and voting is based on democratic centralism. We can only empower the many if we build an alternative.

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J Nic Slabber
4 Apr


The act of voting dictates the value of democracy insofar that a politically uneducated electorate erode the quality of democracy. Democracy therewith becomes its own enemy, not because of the values and principles it underwrites, but due to the stressed imposed upon it by ignorant masses.

J. Nic

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