Xhanti Payi: The ironic price of freedom

The Twitterati have been buzzing over an essential debate: to vote or not to vote? Certainly there are those who believe there is nobody to vote for; others, again, believe that not to vote is a kind of sacrilege, a slap in the face of democracy. Whatever you happen to believe, chances are you're not lukewarm about it.

There has been much fanfare about our twenty-year anniversary as a democratic society, a free people - and the born-frees are for the first time able to exercise their right to vote. Interestingly, however, I've noticed another voice piping up alongside: those who are touting, surprisingly aggressively, their right not to vote. To be honest, it puzzles me.

What puzzles me the most is how proudly some of these young people state their right not to vote. Of course, it's not only young people either. There are also much older people who chime in, saying they choose not to vote because they have become disillusioned.

For myself, I wonder which right we treasure most now that we are a free people: the right to vote, or the right not to vote?

What does it mean to celebrate twenty years of freedom?

What does freedom mean in our context, given our history?

What do we have today that we didn't have twenty years ago?

How do we legitimately weigh up these rights against each other?

Given the liberties we are taking, or not taking, let me indulge a little. What freedom means for us as South Africans, in my understanding, is the right to self-determination.

What colonialism represented was the immoral denial of black people of the right to choose their future. Black people were excluded from what is, or was, known as the universal franchise. Blacks and women were denied the right to participate in the political system. This is to say, they were treated like children who could not be trusted to think and decide for themselves and thus be active political participants.

Consider a quote attributed to Cecil John Rhodes, then Premier of the Cape Colony. Rhodes whom, strangely, we still celebrate today, made the statement that "I will lay down my own policy on this native question. Either you receive them on an equal footing as citizens, or call them a subject race. Well, I've made up my mind…We are to be lords over them…The native is to be treated as a child and denied the franchise."

The twenty years we are celebrating now is the triumph over what Rhodes believed, and enacted.

In his statement from the dock at the Rivonia trial as "the First Accused", the late Nelson Mandela made the assertion that "above all, we want equal political rights, because without them, our disabilities will be permanent". He went on to emphasise that although this meant a threat to whites in that blacks were and would be majority voters, all deserved the right to participate in their own destiny, and thus choose their own political representatives and future.

In so doing, Mandela simplified what the struggle for freedom was about - the basic right to participate in the political future. The right to vote as whites did.

Over the following years, there would be the titanic and bloody battle in which many were killed and families displaced so that each (wo)man could stand and choose his or her own destiny.

Yet today, we assert our right not to participate. We choose to sit on the sidelines and watch others do their bit instead.

The thing about elections is that your choice not to elect does not stop others from doing so. This means that their choices become yours by default. This means that like a child, because you do not choose your religion, or your supper, your parent's choice becomes yours.

Isn't it ironic, then, that the way we celebrate twenty years of freedom is to return to exactly the state we were in prior to the dawn of democracy - having others decide for us as if we were children?

Perhaps that's what freedom means, then - the right to be treated and treat oneself as a child. It is rather ironic, to put it mildly.

This column appeared on Daily Maverick.