A Precious Thing, Unless You’ve Got It

<i> Anthony Hazlitt Heard, former editor of the Cape Times, is a free-lance commentator on Southern Africa based in Cape Town</i>

It is an eye-opener going from an unfree country where most people have no effective vote to a free one where half of the people do not bother to vote.

In the case of South Africa, the denial of democracy is insupportable and socially disrupting. In the case of the United States, the mass failure to support the democratic process is curious and thought-provoking.

Where I come from, the government asserts, Orwell-style, that black South Africans, who number about three-quarters of the population, have the vote. But it is severely limited. They have no vote for central power in Parliament. Few bother to vote for the race-based, subservient creatures offered by the Botha government in place of meaningful political rights.


Local government elections take place throughout South Africa today (nominally involving all races, who will vote for racially separate local councils). Inevitably, South African propagandists will draw comparisons with the United States and other countries holding elections, like Israel, Zambia and Canada.

Leaving other comparisons and reflections aside and concentrating on one only, the low U.S. turnout prompts thoughts. It looked to me on a recent visit as if the percentage of eligible people voting, which has fallen steadily over the years, might drop to 50% or lower in this presidential election--if the singular lack of interest in both George Bush and Michael S. Dukakis that I came across is any guide.

Meanwhile, the South African government is pouring money and effort into making today’s elections a “legitimizing” device. A higher-than-usual turnout among blacks--say, as high as 30% in some areas--could lead to the argument that this is not at all bad when compared with the United States, and shows that blacks are being governed by consent. Any such comparison is ridiculous if one reflects on the relative freedoms of Americans compared to South Africans, but the point probably will be made. And the lower the U.S. voter turnout, the louder will be this propaganda line.

I found even less interest in the presidential race than I had expected, touring from coast to coast recently. In a tavern in tiny but charming Williams, Ariz., I saw relaxed black and white local residents dressed Western-style, playing saloon games, drinking and dancing. The titanic one-liner battles of Dukakis and Bush were nowhere to be seen. Even the Olympics had to take second place to strange (to me) off-road exhibitions--the ones with hard-hatted drivers, plenty of mud and much teetering around on huge thick-tread tires. For all that the good people of Williams knew or cared, the presidential election could be on Mars or in Maputo.

Another telling moment was when some people in West Virginia, who hunt deer to eke out their welfare money, would not go beyond the blunt “Nope, we don’t vote” when probed by a British television program about their lack of interest in the presidential race. The program flashed back to busier and more prosperous days in the same county when President-to-be John F. Kennedy glad-handed his way through the crowds. Economic depression seems an obvious reason for apathy in that area, but the incident seemed to underline a general truth.

Everywhere interest was low. Dan Quayle made a brief visit to Boise, Ida., when I was in town, and, though there were balloons in the streets and some TV and press coverage, the reception from locals could not be described as wildly enthusiastic. One Republican in Indiana confided, rather sadly, that there was embarrassment that Quayle had been chosen to run with Bush. The state could have done better. Even resourceful Dukakis, looking like Snoopy being driven around in a tank, didn’t raise any comment.

In Albuquerque, N.M., a controversy over pornography was the sure-fire seller for local newspapers, not Bush/Dukakis. It was the same story wherever I went--San Francisco, Salt Lake, Wichita, Tulsa, Fort Smith, Indianapolis and through to the East Coast.

Other events seemed more interesting. It was the month in which Billy Carter died, Hirohito lingered, Yellowstone burned, Burma blew up, the space shuttle succeeded, the Greek premier had a lover and heart surgery, Munich 1938 was remembered and the Olympics unfolded at an inconvenient time of day.

Surely this is the moment when the United States needs to throw off complacency and concentrate on presidential matters so that energetic public discussion of big issues (such as the deficit) can lead to post-election clear-headedness and resolve. But the big issues seemed to have taken a holiday.

The candidates seemed to steer clear of anything too divisive, too weighty, too prone to a campaign misstep. This has reduced the campaign to a barrage of one-liners and, in the case of Bush, the theme song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin, which about sums it up.

Many people where I come from regard the vote that they lack as a precious thing to fight and even die for. Many campaigners for the vote here are in jail or exile. There is puzzlement when they see people who have the vote not using it. It is no advertisement for the democratic process elsewhere in the world.

Maybe this will influence some waverers to go along on Nov. 8 and pull the appropriate lever.