Why SA election participation is declining

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A worrying factor for the IEC is the continued decline in interest of the youth casting their votes. Photo: Gallo Images/Die Burger/Jaco Marais
A worrying factor for the IEC is the continued decline in interest of the youth casting their votes. Photo: Gallo Images/Die Burger/Jaco Marais

POLITICS


As voter turnout continued to decline in the country in the last few years, a new survey showed that there was general unhappiness around the inefficacy of democracy.

A worrying factor for the Independent Electoral Commission of SA (IEC) is the continued decline in interest of the youth casting their votes.

A study commissioned by the IEC ahead of the 2024 national election indicated older people above 60 years had consistently been turning out in large numbers at the poll, despite the number also declining.

Speaking at the IEC seminar held in Sandton on Wednesday under the theme of safeguarding electoral democracy in the age of growing mistrust, several speakers blamed political parties for their behaviour that discouraged voters to go and cast ballots.

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Dr Collette Schulz-Herzenberg from the University of Stellenbosch said there’s been a significant decline in participation in South Africa, despite the high hopes after a highly participatory democratic election in 1994.

She said South Africa had a significant gap between registered and eligible voters, which needed to be turned around.

“Although we’ve had growth in a voting age population in South Africa with 36 million eligible voters, registered voters increase by around 2 million at each election, which is a test coming to the IEC’s work. But, the gap between registered voters and eligible voters continues to grow and this gap is one of the widest in the world.”

She said the country sustained a good turnout figure for registered voters in the early years and that has since dropped to 66% in the 2019 election.

She said:

I think what is really of concern, however, is if you take a more accurate picture of turnout and you look through the prism of eligible voters, it is now about 49% of eligible voters.

Schulz-Herzenberg mentioned last year, the numbers dropped even further, for the first time, at a municipal level.

“We have seen a sudden decline in turnout, and we saw less than a third or 31% of our eligible population actually casting a vote on the day,” she said.

She added there was an injection of young people coming into the electorate.

“Now, young people globally turn out at a far lower rate than older people. But, it’s quite a crucifying effect on our aggregate turnout rates.”

Schulz-Herzenberg further explained only 10% of the registered 90% of 18 to 19-year-olds turned out to vote in the last four elections at both municipal and national levels, though there were many eligible voters in that age group.

She said:

It had a devastating effect on participation and aggregate rates in South Africa.

Ebrahim Fakir, director of programmes at Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute (ASRI), said institutions like the IEC have come under attack for poor turnout of voters.

He argued that the multiparty liaison committee (MPLC), the conflict panels and the other organs that the IEC started, have served their purposes, but there may need to be a rethinking of what the purpose of the MPLCs are, and whether their agreements need to be made binding, like the code of conduct, and whether those panels can start referring things to judicial and criminal processes for adjudication.

“Because, if we don’t do that, I fear that the MPLCs will simply become rubber stamp institutions, which won’t really serve a purpose of reducing political violence in conflict,” he said.

Fakir added the IEC needed to always maintain its credibility even when there was a decline in trust and confidence from the society.

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“Coming into the 2021 elections, or at least until the period 2016, both the South African attitude survey and the Afrobarometer showed that the IEC was supported by the public perception surveys and had the second-highest confidence levels after the Constitutional Court. Somewhere above two-thirds of South Africans trusted the IEC, but come to the 2021 elections, this has come down to a third.

It’s still higher than political parties, but it’s a factor of half from what the confidence levels were previously,” said Fakir.

He said the gratuitous accusations and allegations made against the IEC by political parties, often for things, which the IEC was not responsible for, like funding political parties, providing broadcast airtime and not dealing with irregularities that might have appeared in the electoral process, affect the voters’ confidence. Fakir said:

That’s not to say that there were not electoral irregularities, but there’s an increased number of objections to complaints and of disputes from political parties themselves.

“This needs to be categorised and a lot more transparency on the part of the IEC if it wants to restore its current ability.”

He said the increased number of court cases, other than there being an increased number of disputes and objections, also played a role in discouraging voters to turn out because many felt that their votes did not matter.

Fakir said the IEC needed to train their electoral officials, particularly those lower down the order.


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