analysisBy Steven Friedman
On one level, the question seems ridiculous. All elections offer choices and all of us are allowed to vote.
So many parties are likely to appear on this year's ballot paper that the Independent Electoral Commission might face a serious printing challenge. Isn't the fact that we can all choose who will govern us from a wide array of parties one of the great achievements of the fight against apartheid?
Yes and No. The vote is an essential tool for citizens who want a share in the decisions, which affect them. This applies particularly to people living in poverty, who find it almost impossible to be heard without the lever which the vote offers - the tired cliché 'you cannot eat democracy' ignores the fact that many people around the world would have much less to eat if they did not have the vote; it is the vote which enables them to influence the policies which might make it possible for them to eat.
But the vote does not do these things automatically - only in some circumstances does it enable people to turn potential into actual power. In South Africa, circumstances have not made it possible for the poor to use the vote effectively.
The most obvious reason is the nature of party politics here. If the poor are to use the vote effectively, politicians must compete for their vote - in India, slum dwellers' leaders have effectively played parties off against each other, enhancing the muscle of their members.
Here, the poor have had little choice because one party has dominated the areas in which they live - usually the African National Congress although, for a while, the Inkatha Freedom Party could count on the votes of the poor in rural KwaZulu Natal. The party, which dominated the area, faced no competition, leaving the poor without choices or leverage.
In theory, poor people could form their own party and so give themselves a choice. But this requires assets - not only money but organisation too. And so the poor are forced to choose between the parties, which others in society form.
The fact that one party has tended to dominate most residential areas - in particular those in which the poor live - has restricted the choices of the poor in another way.
While the middle class lives in environments in which people can speak and organise freely, the poor enjoy no such advantage - in many areas where poor people live, local power holders are used to dominating and they resist allowing others to challenge their hold on the neighbourhood: this makes it difficult to form the citizens' organisations, which enable people to work for what they want - and to bargain with political parties.
These realities have combined to ensure that, while the poor have a vote, they rarely are able to use it to ensure that they have a voice. Will this election be any different? Yes, but not yet sufficiently to make a huge difference.
This election will be the most competitive in our history. The ANC is facing significant dissatisfaction among its voters (while the DA faces internal division and a more critical media).
Perhaps most important for the poor, parties are now actively competing for their votes - the DA has been canvassing support in some areas where the poor live for some time and new parties have appeared who are interested in seeking their votes (even if their ability to do is exaggerated).
Poor people are also beginning to use elections to make their voice heard - the ANC lost local by-elections in Marikana after the notorious shootings there and in Nkandla after media reports about spending on the President's homestead.
Perhaps most important, the ANC knows that it now has to work for voters' support. Last year, it sent a circular to its members of parliament, urging them to ensure that only laws that are popular with voters (or key groups of voters) are passed in the run-up to the election.
While this is normal party behaviour in most democracies, it is new to the ANC, which has not needed to woo voters in the past because it could count on their support.
The fact that the ANC is now wooing the poor gives them bargaining power, which they have not had before - a clear example was the firing of the mayor and two senior councillors in Madibeng municipality, North West province, after protests in the area. This new leverage opens up new potential for successful pressure to secure better government and policy change.
But the change is only partial.
First, there are already signs that the ANC will not face as much of a challenge in townships and shack settlements as much of the media hype suggests.
The DA, which once insisted that it was targeting 30 percent of the vote, is now lowering its expectations. Nor are the new parties likely to make a great impact.
Agang never made inroads on the ground - which is why its leader was willing to join the DA's list - and the much-vaunted Economic Freedom Fighters might be good at arriving late at protests they did not organise, but are yet to show that they have any organisation among the poor rather than among the ambitious middle-class young people who are its natural base.
Second, greater competition among parties has also ensured more conflict between them - as parties begin to stray onto turf once monopolised by a dominant party, local power holders have new reason to elbow out competitors. While the Marikana and Nkandla by-elections suggest that this will not prevent poor voters making a choice, it will restrict their options.
Third, party competition is still not intense enough to allow poor people to play one party off against another.
Indian slum dwellers don't rely on one party to champion their cause, but on shifting support from one to another depending on what parties are able to offer them. At present, most parties don't have anything to offer and so there is a severe limit to how effective this strategy can be.
Perhaps most important, the poor can only take advantage of these opportunities if they are organised, but organisation is weak.
The wave of social protests in areas where the poor live show that people are angry. But they show also that they are not organised because rarely if ever are protests led by an organised group which could bargain for change.
The weakening of one party control over residential areas could open more space for organisation of the poor but there are many obstacles and progress will not be easy.
One recent development could make this the last election that many of these hurdles impede the choices of the poor. If the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) goes ahead with plans to build a social movement uniting workers and the poor outside the workplace, this could be a vital spur to organising the poor. If this initiative prompts the establishment of a party, the electoral choices of the poor will expand significantly.
This time around, the election is likely to bring new possibilities for the poor - but not enough to ensure anything like the influence on decisions to which democracy entitles them.
Friedman is Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg.