Yesterday saw scores of people queuing at their local voting stations to have their say in the 2016 local government elections. While we wait for the results of these hotly contested elections it’s easy to forget that just over twenty years ago, this vital public role was limited to just a fraction of South Africa’s population.
The laws that controlled who could cast their vote initially differed between the various provinces in South Africa, but the overall effect was that it was only really white men who owned property who got to have their say, although as much as 15% of the electorate in the Cape was made up of non-white men, because of the number of coloured, Indian and black people who owned property in that province. But with white women being given the vote in 1930, even the small representation of non-whites in the Cape was diluted as the number of white voters suddenly doubled.
In 1936 the Representation of Natives Act removed black voters from the common voters’ rolls and placed them on separate ‘native voters roll’ where they could elect three members of the assembly and two members of the council. Four senators could also be elected by chiefs, tribal councils and local councils for ‘native areas’. The Representation of Natives Act was repealed in 1959, effectively removing all voting rights of non-whites, with the exception of from the Bantustan legislatures. After coming to power in 1948 the National Party engaged in a policy of removing coloured people from the voters roll in a similar manner to the way that they had dealt with black voters.
With the end of apartheid came South Africa’s first historic non-racial election in 1994, with the right to universal suffrage enshrined in our Constitution in 1996.
The KwaMuhle Museum, part of the Liberation Heritage Route in Durban, commemorates the struggle for dignity by ordinary people during apartheid. At one point home to the office of the notorious Department of Native Affairs, this former apartheid institution now houses displays that offer insight into the way a majority of South Africans were treated as ‘second class citizens’ until 1994, helping us to remember the long road that brought us to the point we were at yesterday, standing side-by-side, exercising this vital right to have our voices heard.
Image courtesy of sahistory.org.za