On November 1 my family and I will join millions of South Africans in exercising our right to elect our local government representatives. We will do so knowing this right was obtained through the struggles and sacrifices of the past, but also that we will be determining our future and that of the community we live in.

As the preamble of our constitution says: “We, the people of SA, recognise the injustices of our past; honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land; Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and believe that SA belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.

“We therefore, through our freely elected representatives, adopt this constitution as the supreme law of the republic so as to

  • Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights;
  • Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law; and
  • Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person.”

These elections are about taking another step towards fulfilling the vision embraced in the preamble. But the path to a better, more equitable SA was never going to be easy or faultless. Challenges there will be many. Mistakes will happen. Diversions and undermining of our dearest values will be [undertaken] by some.

But belief in a different future for all South Africans, and the courage and resilience to continue to endeavour against the most retrogressive of tendencies are part of the DNA of our nationhood. This is the spirit that inspired those leaders and millions of citizens who built the foundation of a modern democracy — a democracy in the making.  

These elections take place at a complex and challenging time for both SA and the world: a once-in-a-lifetime Covid-19 pandemic; vaccine nationalism; glaring inequality; troubling and potentially destabilising geopolitics; climate change; and economic turmoil reflected in trade, production and supply chain dynamics.

Many of these trends are reflected in SA as well: inequality, unemployment, unplanned urbanisation, lagging service delivery, income and asset poverty, racism, misogyny.

As we consider whether to vote or not, and which party or candidate to vote for, we must also send a message to the world, and all South Africans, that we choose the path of unity, hard work, development, inclusivity and shared prosperity. We must refuse to support racism, division, populism, opportunism, conflict, destruction, inequality and exclusion.

Equally, we must learn the lessons of the past. Public representatives are in place to serve the best interests of the public. Not their own careers or rent-seeking opportunists.

There has to be a step change in living and economic conditions for the majority: there is a responsibility to improve the supply of water and sanitation; access to affordable electricity that everyone pays for; a more safe and secure environment; a concerted war against criminals; a local environment that invites safe investment and a supportive ecosystem for local businesses — all of which lead to jobs being created.

Let me be frank. In the last few years we have seen declining levels of service rendered by our municipalities. The auditor-general has revealed that a number of our municipalities have financial problems resulting from improper expenditure, corruption and incompetence. Basic municipal services such as refuse collection, grass cutting, street cleaning and other functions have deteriorated. This situation must change. There must be hope for a better life. This means building communities that are confident of the prospects of the future.

This election must be a watershed moment. A moment of renewal, of change, of a different political culture emerging. The social disconnect that has developed between our public representatives and communities must be overcome. Passion, empathy, commitment and solidarity must be the hallmarks of the new contingent of councillors. 

There is a real danger that the cumulative effect of poverty, joblessness and inequality, together with corruption, state capture and the pandemic, has resulted in people no longer placing their trust in political institutions and particularly politicians.

We can never give up on democracy. We  must fight for the strengthening  and safeguarding of our democracy. In this regard we must reclaim our citizenship by voting on Monday.

However, voting alone is not a guarantee that those we elect next week will deliver willingly on their promise. Representative democracy must go hand-in-hand with direct democracy. As we learnt from our struggle, freedoms are never given without activism. Oversight and accountability are critical mechanisms through which power is made to address our problems of service delivery to ensure a better life for all. It is important that our newly elected councillors are made to deliver on their election promises.

We should not allow despondency or resignation in the face of the wrongs that have been committed in the name of democracy to triumph. Apathy easily leads to widening inequality, where the poor and vulnerable end up feeling impotent and irrelevant.

In  a democracy the source of authority is the people, not leaders. Through the democratic process we are co-creating our shared sense of national identity. Our  strength lies in our diversity and common aspirations for the future. Elections are therefore key institutional mechanism through which we seek to continuously protect and expand our freedoms, our unity and our dignity.

Elections are testimony to the fulfilment of a great democratic tradition running from the adoption of the Freedom Charter in 1955 to the enactment of our constitution in 1996. And now, the consolidation of the democratic state and the values that underpin it.

A special message to our youth from all communities: become active and informed citizens. The future is yours. Participate in shaping this future.

The Freedom Charter appeals to our vigilance, that we must never allow the interests of a few to override our common good and purpose: “Let all who love their people and their country now say, as we say here: these freedoms we will fight for, side by side. Throughout our lives, until we have won our liberty.”

• Gordhan is ANC public enterprises minister.

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