In the past few weeks the men and women of the township I grew up in have been asking one another “Who are you voting for?” in addition to “How are you?”.

I heard someone say once, referencing some political theorist or other, that the only democratic thing about democracy is an election, but even then the vote is just a way to legitimise corruption, to give the people in power permission to loot. However much that bleak statement may sound like home (just look at Nkandla), it is clear to me that my vote is only a tiny cog in the democratic machine. In these past 10 days leading up to the polls, almost every political party got on a podium and played the blame game. But even if we had the best and most transparent government in place, it would never work if the citizenry was not engaged in a meaningful way. A successful democracy needs a civil society that is robust, supported by citizens who hold their government accountable to the promises they make at election time, citizens who actually attend municipal meetings, read documents and challenge or amend them.

Technically, I am not a “born free”, but by the time I came into the world Mandela had already made his long walk out of prison into a ‘new’ South Africa, so I guess I am. My peers and I are often accused of being apathetic and apolitical. I know there are some among bana ba Mandela* who are more concerned with Pop Bottles and how many followers they have on Twitter, but I also know that that generalisation is incredibly unfair – and lazy.

The first time I was eligible to vote, the IEC came to my boarding school to register those of age, but I was unable to register because I didn’t have my ID with me. I felt so irresponsible, disappointed and silly for missing out on something so important. A few of us sat together arguing about our country’s future, sharing our opinions passionately. Some were not convinced that the DA was genuinely interested in representing the interests of black people, while some felt that it offered a viable alternative to the ANC. Some were certain the ANC was the only party that could move South Africa forward, and simply needed more time to carry out its mandate. It was around the time of the emergence and rise of Cope, which some were very excited about, while others resigned themselves to voting for the party they felt would do the least damage in government. The fervour of that conversation five years ago makes me think that although born-frees might be disillusioned, frustrated, bitter or misguided, we are certainly not apathetic.

Miracles unfold during election season. Roads that were previously neglected and peppered with potholes are patched up. Streets are clean, and councillors listen to and follow up on grievances in the same week. Trash is collected on time. We see it and it confirms that the government does not respect us or our intelligence. But should that make us spoil our ballot to send a message?

What the run-up to my first time has made me realise is that I was considering parties based on my fears and not on how much they demonstrate a nuanced understanding and approach to women’s rights, BEE, land ownership, education and serving the people. The tricky thing is that even if parties represent my politics, they probably have scandals that betray their purported ideal. Politics is a dirty game, but to spoil my ballot would feel like a betrayal to those who sacrificed so much for my right to vote. Today, for the first time in my life, I am going to vote, because voting is my foot in the door. But after I have made that mark, the real work begins.

* Mandela’s children. Used by some disdainfully to refer to individuals who enjoy the gains of freedom without wanting the responsibility that comes with it. Can also be used affectionately, interchangeably with “born-frees”.

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