Election volunteers: the beating heart of democracy

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• Kate Bapela
Spokesperson
Independent Electoral Commision
+27 12 622 5700
spokesperson@elections.org.za


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There are armies on the loose in South Africa; legions of dedicated, earnest citizens, young and not so young wearing out shoe leather, and making endless pots of tea and mountains of sandwiches as they go door to door explaining the finer points of their party manifestos. Their t-shirts, the colours of the rainbow, identify their political allegiances.

These are the election volunteers, the men and women who believe that democracy involves more than having the right to vote. They are the beating heart of democracy, and they are, as Ivan Scheier, a US pioneer of political volunteer management, said, “Doing more than you have to because you want to, in a cause you consider good.”

For these South Africans, volunteering is not a choice; it’s a responsibility, which gives them a voice to shape and mould a democratic South Africa they can be proud of.

It’s impossible to say exactly how many election volunteers there are. They are however all participating fully in building a democratic culture in South Africa. 

Meet the election volunteers

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“I will continue to vote and specifically vote for the ANC to ensure that it takes South Africa Forward.” Siphile Buthelezi (Image: Siphile Buthelezi)

Siphile Buthelezi is one of the many good stories South Africa can tell. The son of a domestic worker and builder, the one-time taxi driver is now a lawyer, and an African National Congress (ANC) election volunteer; he likens himself to a foot soldier.

“The ANC created an environment conducive for a black child like me to prosper. My family were beneficiaries of a government housing subsidy, running water, sanitation, electricity; and I was able to study thanks to a National Student Aid Fund Scheme bursary. Volunteering is my way of ensuring that the sacrifices of leaders like Chris Hani and Solomon Mahlangu and Nelson Mandela were not in vain.”

For Buthelezi this means telling the good news story of South Africa over the past 20 years. He is committed to seeing the ANC retain control to build on the gains of the past 20 years. His duty, as he sees it, is to explain the path the government has set the country on and why it is important not to stray from it. “As a volunteer I get to deliver the good news about the ANC. Most SA voters don’t necessarily read party manifestos in detail, which makes it very important to have volunteers to verbally explain what the ANC is all about, what the ANC has done and plans to do in future. They are the only progressive force of change; SA voters love the ANC and still want to be governed by the ANC despite its shortcomings.”

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“AgangSA volunteers spread the good news of change that the party can bring to the nation.” Monica Brown(Image: Monica Brown)

Monica Brown, an AgangSA volunteer in the Western Cape, who voted for the first time in 2009, says she “voted for COPE then because their promises were appealing and I felt my vote did not matter to the ANC or the DA”.

Like all volunteers she understands that freedom and democracy allow her to live peacefully alongside neighbours who have made different choices. Brown has volunteered for two parties in her short political career; the one constant she has found is that voting is not taken seriously by South Africans. “We need to begin voter education at school level. South Africans can quickly take to the streets and protest, but they do not even register to vote. The fact voter education is a priority for AgangSA is one of the reasons the party appeals to me.”

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“I want to have an answer when my children ask ‘dad what did you do to secure our future?.” Raleigh Ellis (Image: Raleigh Ellis)

For some volunteers the unpaid work they do is about building a sense of identity as South Africans. Raleigh Ellis, a Democratic Alliance (DA) volunteer in Hartebeespoort, in Gauteng province, voted in the 1992 referendum when eligible white voters were asked to decide the future of apartheid, but not again until 2011.

“In my father’s house politics was not allowed to be discussed or tolerated. In 2011 I looked at my children and realised that I had to become involved or they would struggle in the future. I did not want to be faced with the question, ‘Dad what did you do to secure our future?’ Yes my opinion of voting has changed; it is part of your risk analysis when planning your family’s future.”

Business-minded Ellis says South African voters do not understand that a strong economy and the freedoms of democracy are inextricably linked. He believes that voters need to see themselves as paying customers – their votes their currency – who should treat the government as a company that needs to react to their needs.

“Political promises have financial implications; voters become gatvol [fed up] because government is unable to keep their promises. There are even some black DA supporters who are saying that things were better under apartheid – at least they had work. South Africans are still learning about their power in a democracy – as a volunteer I get to help them understand that the government they have is a result of the choices they make.”

The established parties can afford slicker campaigns with paid staff, but smaller, newer parties have been able to build strong localised grassroots campaigns. In the Western Cape, especially in Cape Town, the Patriotic Alliance has made strong inroads in part because it has built its presence through on-the-ground volunteers.

In her Western Cape Mitchells Plain home Elizabeth Prinsloo woke from a dream filled with an unshakeable belief that her God wanted to use her to spread His message in politics. She has found a new political home in the Patriotic Alliance, whose posters proclaim the Damascus conversion of their founder, former bank robber, Gayton Mckenzie. She says, “The Lord will get that man into parliament. I can’t say that the ANC or the DA did nothing for us, but we need a coloured man in parliament to speak for us.”

Prinsloo burns with the anger of a woman who expected her life to change, but has seen her community stagnate. Volunteering has given her an avenue to remake her community as she imagined it at the dawn of democracy. “My grandchild has a matric but she is sitting at home; we have gangsters as role models for our unemployed children. My neighbours have tried all the other parties – it’s time for us to give someone else a chance,” says the pensioner who has signed up 1 000 new voters by her own count.

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“I volunteer not for myself but for the world I leave behind for my children and their children.” Elizabeth Prinsloo (Image: Sulaiman Philip)

Keeping an ear to the ground through election volunteers

The popular US phrase, “all politics is local”, is especially true of South African politics. Faced with inherited problems that need to be solved while rebuilding a society, it sometimes seems to local communities that their government has forgotten them and their problems. Volunteers give parties an ear on the ground that allows them to find local solutions to local problems.

All the parties contesting this election, the big and the small, know that winning or losing hangs as much on their “ground game” as it does on their message. For them it means giving their volunteers the right data for when they knock on doors and canvas their neighbours.

In his book Dreams of my Father President Barack Obama narrates his experiences as a volunteer working in the poorer sections of Chicago’s South Side, where talking to people on different sides of the political and economic spectrum shaped his world view and sharpened his ability to look at issues from different perspectives.

AgangSA volunteer Brown agrees that volunteering is the best classroom to learn first-hand the problems facing a community. “Your vote is your voice” she says, before adding, “In my short life volunteering is the most fulfilling thing I have done. I have developed skills I did not have and earned a renewed respect for myself. Today I am able to help my communities in a better, more effective way.”

There needs to be a fundamental shift in the way that voters think about elections and how it affects their lives, says Ellis. In his experience he finds that voters don’t see the connection between a vote and how it can change their economic future. “Voters need to be more involved in shaping the plans of political parties and changing the fortunes of this country. As volunteers it is our responsibility to drive home this simple message.”

Volunteering is an expensive exercise for political parties. It is inefficient, time-consuming and exhausting. But, and this is true especially in the final weeks of a campaign, it is better than any other tactic for reaching people and getting the message out.

Get Out The Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout is the bible of voter mobilisation. Written by Donald Green and Alan Gerber, political scientists at Yale University, they found that door-to-door canvassing remains the most effective tool for political parties. It produces, on average, one vote for every 14 home visits; personal phone calls and text messages are the next best, winning a vote with every 38 people contacted.

And, as one anonymous wit once put it, “Don’t knock volunteers. Noah’s Ark was built by volunteers; the Titanic, by professionals.”