Diwali and democracy

2008-10-28 00:00

In two weeks time it will be voter registration for the 2009 elections. And this week is Diwali. Like the fall of apartheid, the festival of lights is about the homecoming of righteousness after a long absence.

For business people this marks the beginning of the new financial year and they tidy up their books, settle their accounts and pray to the goddess Lakshmi for financial prosperity.

For farmers this marks the end of the harvest season and they pray that the new season will be bountiful and that nature will be kind to them. For others this week marks new beginnings, fresh starts and self-purifying resolutions. It is celebrated for lots of different reasons in many different ways. It is a celebration of diversity on the one hand and unity on the other. Locally, we observe it in our own “proudly South African” way, but keeping the “made in India” label.

But Diwali is essentially about politics. And its political significance symbolises much of what our country needs.

Hindu mythology says that Lord Rama was banished to a forest for 14 years because his stepmother Kaikeyi wanted her son Bharat to become the king, even though Rama was the lawful heir. Rama’s wife Sita and brother Lakshman joined him in exile. Bharat reluctantly took the throne, ready to give it up for Rama if he returned. Sita was later kidnapped by the evil Ravana and the defeat of Ravana by Rama symbolises the triumph of good over evil, love over lust and justice over crime. The couple’s return from exile happened during a dark moonless period and so the people lit lamps to direct them back home. The lighting of lamps is now a way of welcoming righteousness and truthfulness into our lives.

Back to voter registration. There are many debates about who the rightful heir to the ANC throne should be. Jacob’s Zuma rise to the top may not be in the best interests of the country’s image, but politics is about power, not the people, and the ANC will win the election.

Not voting because “the ANC is going to win anyway” is like arguing that a CEO makes every single decision in the company. This is not true. In meetings, even the presence of one lone voice can shift the outcome of a bad decision. A president is not a king with absolute power. Kingdoms without elections worked in the time of Rama, when leadership and service were synonymous. Servant leaders do not become politicians anymore. And those who do are overshadowed by those who don’t, because we live in a culture that exposes mockery, not merits. The public will have only themselves to blame if the ruling party and its cronies become so powerful that life in South Africa spirals out of control.

South Africa is too diverse for there to be a comfortable consensus on matters like national leadership. The majority the ANC receives at elections is disproportionate to the diversity of opinions we have in the public sphere. The point of everybody voting is to make sure that whoever wins does not have absolute power, because history teaches us that power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely. The winner should not take it all.

When Rama returned to Ayodyha, a glistening pathway was made possible only by each individual lamp, however small. The lamps led only in one direction —back to the kingdom. Next year, each ballot cast in the election is going to light a lamp. Most of the lamps will lead the ANC back into power and this we must accept for now. But an election is not only about choosing winners. With the world’s best mayor, Helen Zille, heading the official opposition,

Mosiuoa “Terror” Lekota forming his own splinter party, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) determined to win back KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) and the increasing irritation at the South African Communist Party (SACP) cashing in on ANC votes, this election will let everybody know where they stand.

If ever there was a time to vote, it is now.

In a time of absolute darkness, even one lamp stands out. The light creates awareness. Voting is about creating awareness. It is about telling the winners that there is competition and telling the opposition to try harder. It is about expressing our diversity. You waive the right to complain if you waive your right to vote.

When Nelson Mandela was elected president, 80% of eligible people voted. In 2004, 52% of the voting population didn’t bother. Every person who does not vote is giving away a vote to the ruling party by creating consensus that it deserves absolute power. In Africa, calls for voter participation need to be loud, clear and strong, because when the public becomes lazy, so do the leaders.

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