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Voting, Even When It Makes You Sick

Millennials face an important choice this Election Day between idealism and pragmatism.

By Glen Retief


Mogomotsi More looks on as his father Tshidiso More casts his vote during the 2014 South African General Election in the Soweto Township in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

As a white South African I grew up under some pretty impressive calls for election boycotts.

This was the 1980s. In my young adult years my vote seemed pointless, an ugly incarnation of apartheid privilege. I couldn’t even picture myself, green ID book in hand, heading to a voting booth to place my cross next to the blue and yellow logo of the liberal Democratic Party, which cautiously supported the extension of the franchise to blacks.

Not all agreed, but many liberation leaders like Nelson Mandela asked progressive whites to sit out elections. They assessed our trivial chance of making a difference was outweighed by the legitimacy our participation would lend a racist vote. Therefore, much like today’s liberal Millennials wondering whether to vote for the lesser of evils, I struggled with my conscience.

Should I boycott? Or was this — to use Angela Davis’ recent word — narcissistic? The African National Congress’ advice notwithstanding, was I placing my own moral comfort ahead of the well-being of the country?

On Wednesday, September 6th, 1989, I spent the entire day agonizing about the election for the apartheid parliament. Twenty minutes before the polls closed, unable to bear the thought of helping the racist parties win more seats as a result of my inaction, I cast my ballot, feeling sick to my stomach.

Having the world’s largest per-capita polluter headed by a climate denier risks bequeathing Millennials a world of superstorms, crippling droughts, war, and climate refugees.

Liberals did better than expected in that election. Today it’s generally accepted this was one factor that inspired F.W. De Klerk to announce the release of Mandela, the unbanning of the liberation movements, and the beginning of constitutional negotiations five months later.

So, with hindsight, I don’t regret what I did, even though a quarter century later I still feel some embarrassment at having failed to heed that particular anti-apartheid sanction.

Historical parallels only go so far. To compare, say, the corrupting role of big money in the forthcoming United States vote to the illegitimacy of apartheid is an insult to black South Africans. Yet today, teaching creative writing to 18- to-22-year-old Americans at Susquehanna University, I still can’t completely escape the reminders.

I see my students struggle with a visceral sense that voting for Hillary Clinton implicitly endorses a political style and system they find repulsive: militaristic, dishonest, corrupt, and exploitative. And let’s be honest. Even if they don’t compare to those of my childhood South Africa, the U.S.’s political flaws are real enough.

Progressive social democracy seems remote. Clinton’s plans to address the climate crisis are inadequate. Rich campaign donors have far too much influence.

Yet in 2000, Ralph Nader voters helped bring us the George W. Bush years, which inflicted serious long-term damage, including the war in Iraq and the tax cuts that magnified income inequality.

The potential negative impact of a Donald Trump presidency, too, seems mind-boggling, even beyond the headlines concerning crass misogyny. To mention just one, having the world’s largest per-capita polluter headed by a climate denier risks bequeathing Millennials a world of superstorms, crippling droughts, war, and climate refugees.

I sympathize with my students’ dilemma: pragmatism or idealism. Hope or fear. Collusion or destruction. Yet in weighing the pros and cons this November, young American progressives might well recall another mostly white South African election, that of May 1948.

That contest pitted a wooden establishment politician, Jan Smuts, against an insurgent Afrikaner Nationalist movement fueled by white workers who feared having to compete with cheap black labor. Smuts essentially stood for nothing more inspiring than “discrimination lite,” a vague and gradual expansion of civil rights. His opponents favored something called “apartheid.”

Smuts won the popular vote but lost his parliamentary majority. One factor, certainly, was the decision by many liberals to sit out the election. As a result, South Africa would suffer under apartheid for half a century. By 1994, when I cast my first joyful, guilt-free, non-racial vote for Mandela as president, a million Mozambicans and Angolans had died in orchestrated civil wars and many more of my own compatriots had been deprived of homes, dignity, and education.

Decisions have consequences, some of them serious and long-lasting. I hope on November 8th young progressives will carefully consider the long-term repercussions and make a reasoned choice that best advances their own interests, and those of the world.