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The Black Ballot

June 10, 2024

As elections loom in approximately twenty-five African countries and numerous nations with significant African diaspora populations, it becomes imperative to reflect on the journey that we, as Black people, have undertaken to reach a point where we can exercise our right to cast a ballot. Black suffrage is integral to almost every Black struggle for civil rights, from the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa, the Zikist Movement in Nigeria and the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. While our fights for independence seem siloed, Black people worldwide worked together to theorize and realize the dream of Black liberation and freedom through the political process. Now that we hold the ballot, do Black people truly feel the liberation and political independence we fervently yearned for? 


In the 1950s and 60s, Black people mobilized to fight for Black liberation worldwide. At the forefront of that conversation was Kwame Nkrumah – one of the most recognized voices in the pan-Afrikan movement. Nkrumah was the first president of independent Ghana. His rise to power, showing how impactful voting can be when people are empowered, was closely connected to fighting colonialism, the importance of voting, and the desire for national independence. Voting was crucial in Nkrumah’s ascent to power and the realization of Ghana’s independence. In the lead-up to independence, Ghana held general elections in 1951 under a new constitution that allowed for limited self-government. Despite being in prison at the time, the Convention People’s Party (CPP), led by Nkrumah, won a decisive victory, and he became the country’s first Prime Minister. The people had spoken, the ballots were clear, and the colonial powers had to release Nkrumah. Subsequent elections in 1954 and 1956 further solidified the CPP’s mandate, with Nkrumah continuing to garner widespread support through the ballot. These electoral victories provided legitimacy to his leadership. It became his mandate to negotiate with the British for complete independence. Nkrumah’s release marked a significant turning point in Ghana’s struggle for freedom, paving the way for political negotiations and the eventual achievement of sovereignty in 1957.


In a similar vein, Senegal experienced a comparable situation this year. Situated in West Africa, Senegal boasts a political landscape marked by its stability in a region often plagued by unrest. Since gaining independence from France in 1960, the country has upheld a robust democratic tradition.  However, challenges such as corruption, youth unemployment, and poverty persist, alongside concerns regarding human rights and freedom of expression. In 2024 the Senegalese youth took action against this corruption. Their favourite candidate was corruptly imprisoned by the ruling party. Fueled by urgency and determination, Senegalese youth took to the streets to convey a clear message: they wouldn’t accept the upcoming elections until Bassirou Faye, seen as the ideal leader to liberate Senegal from neocolonialism, was set free. In response, the government freed Faye before the elections. This boosted morale among his supporters and led to a significant victory for him at the polls. His triumph not only demonstrated the steadfast support of the youth but also marked a significant shift in Senegal’s political landscape, with people believing he could lead them away from neocolonial influences.

This was part of a broader protest led by the “Resistance Front,” a coalition of opposition parties and groups, who demanded not only Faye’s release but also fair elections. These protests, characterized by chants against [then] President Macky Sall’s leadership and calls for Ousmane Sonko’s freedom (Sonko is the leader of the opposition party), represented a grassroots movement advocating for democracy and opposing perceived authoritarianism. After Faye’s victory in Senegal’s 2024 presidential election, he appointed Sonko as his prime minister.

South Africa

The political prisoner-to-president pipeline is quite common; South Africa’s first democratic election is the most salient example. Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment in 1963 became a symbol of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. His release in 1990, after 27 years behind bars, marked a watershed moment in the country’s transition to democracy and the dismantling of apartheid militancy. In 1994, Black South Africans finally achieved the suffrage they fought tooth and nail for. With an 87 percent voter turnout rate, this was one of the most contested elections ever. After three decades, South Africa is having an election as crucial as the historic 1994 vote. However, 13 million people are not registered to vote. Voter turnout has significantly decreased from past elections. Our parents and grandparents fervently fought to give us the right to vote; and people died in the struggle for suffrage. The youth’s skepticism toward the ballot reflects a perception of its co-option by neo-colonial interests. Consequently, they seek alternative paths to attain power, recognizing that the struggle extends beyond electoral participation. This discourse raises questions about the efficacy of traditional democratic processes in addressing systemic issues.

The Ballot Or The Bullet

Malcolm X spoke about this regarding Black-American suffrage. In his speech titled The Ballot or The Bullet, he claims that the means Black people will use to exercise their political freedom are: “the ballot or the bullet.”  The ballot is casting your vote. He facetiously calls the Black vote “dumb,” “ignorant,” and “wasted.” He alludes to the false propaganda that Black voters are powerless while criticizing Black Americans for how they use their right to vote. Symbolically, ‘the ballot’ is the meaningful participation of African-Americans in American democracy. He adds, “Your wasted vote put in an administration in Washington, D.C., that has seen fit to pass every kind of legislation imaginable.” Later, he elaborates that despite the significance of the Black vote, it is frequently undermined through systematic suppression methods such as gerrymandering and filibustering. This results in the perception that Black votes are either “wasted” or misused. For instance, being coerced into voting for white politicians will only bring trivial or menial change. He even cites that “they’ve been using on our people by promising them promises they don’t intend to keep.” He then urges them to be “politically mature” enough to put their vote to good use. 

The Ballot or The Bullet, resonates deeply with the low voter turnout in South Africa, particularly among Black communities. In the speech, X emphasizes the importance of political participation and the significance of the Black vote in shaping the course of democracy. He highlights the systemic barriers and challenges that hinder meaningful participation in the political process. In South Africa, historical injustices, socio-economic inequalities, and institutionalized racism continue to marginalize Black communities and undermine their ability to exercise their political rights fully.

Additionally, the coercion and manipulation of Black voters by promising false changes resonate with experiences of political manipulation and exploitation in South Africa’s electoral landscape. Many Black voters may feel disillusioned with the choices presented to them and may question the sincerity of politicians’ promises. Black Americans and South Africans often say, “We have to vote for the lesser of the evils.” Hence, many abstain from casting their ballots, not out of apathy, but out of a profound refusal to endorse any candidate they perceive as morally bankrupt or ethically compromised. In the face of such choices, they opt for the decisive act of abstention, asserting their integrity and refusing to be complicit in a system that offers only flawed options. This abstention is not an act of surrender but a defiant stand against the normalization of corruption and injustice. It is a declaration that the sacred right to vote cannot be bartered for lesser evils but must be reserved for candidates who embody the principles of integrity, justice, and genuine representation. However, this doesn’t work, nor does voting in neocolonial contexts. So what do Black voters do? How do we solve this dilemma? Some argue that failing to show up to vote disrespects the fight for civil rights. But, this issue is more multifaceted than that.. Black people back then fought for Black power, and are still fighting for Black power today. The only difference is that the ballot was seen as a golden ticket to this power and freedom we yearned for back then. However, now that the Black ballot has been corrupted and co-opted, it is no longer the same symbol for freedom; people are looking for another ticket. The ballot’s power as a ticket to freedom has expired. 

Similarly, in various contexts, the ballot can be undermined or manipulated for power, often to the detriment of marginalized communities. In the U.S., voter suppression tactics such as, voter I.D. laws, and voter purges disproportionately target Black, Indigenous, and other minority communities. These tactics are used by those in power to maintain their political dominance by restricting access to the ballot box for specific demographics. By manipulating electoral boundaries or imposing restrictive voter identification requirements, politicians can effectively disenfranchise population segments and undermine the democratic process. 

In both the United States and South Africa, marginalized communities are often coerced or manipulated into supporting political candidates or parties that do not genuinely represent their interests. Promises of insignificant change or symbolic gestures may be used to earn support from these communities despite the absence of substantive policy reforms or meaningful engagement with their concerns. This exploitation of the ballot undermines the democratic principle of genuine representation and erodes trust in the political process. 

We’ve wielded power through the ballot before: from the resounding call for independence in Ghana’s landmark referendum of 1956 to South Africa’s historic 1994 democratic elections, where the will of a nation shattered the chains of apartheid to Black Americans’ relentless struggle which culminated in legislative triumphs like the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of the 1960s. Each ballot cast was not merely a vote but an affirmation of our collective strength, a declaration of our unyielding resolve to dismantle systems of oppression, and a testament to the enduring power of democracy in the pursuit of justice and equality. Through the ballot, we have spoken truth to power, challenged the status quo, and ushered in transformative change for generations to come.

But the question right now is: how do we expect democracy to be egalitarian when it operates in a highly unequal society? The increased voter apathy is not coincidental but a reaction to feeling powerless. However, if the Black vote was as impotent as we think it is, there would not be all these systemic efforts to deter the Black vote from being cast. Multilateral and national powers would not spend that much time and money investing in manipulating Black voters into thinking that they are powerless.


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