South African voter absenteeism must be understood first and foremost as strategic, informed and intended. Their absence is by no means a sign of apathy, writes Tinyiko Maluleke.
we mourn the lowest voter turn-out since Mandela; before arthritis-ridden fore-fingers
of the fore-fathers and the fore-mothers go wagging at the allegedly apathetic youth,
for neither registering nor turning out in numbers; before we castigate the IEC
for failing to foresee some basic foreseeable developments; let us pause and acknowledge
how beautiful a day the 8th of May 2019 was, overall.
splendid display of the "glorious human achievement" that is South
African democracy, of which Nelson Mandela spoke at his inauguration in 1994! Throughout
the day, South Africans filed into the 22 000 voting stations, there to renew their
democracy vows, five years later and 25 years since the dawn of democracy.
we must too. As the election dust settles, another cloud of dust is rising. It
is the dust of men and women caught in a stampede for Cabinet positions and
other top jobs. The recently named premiers of seven provinces were the first
to receive their "rewards". Soon they will "reward" others
into their provincial executive committees in turn, and on it will go, this thinly-veiled
system of patronage.
is sad to note that little, if any of the policy principles and the national
developmental needs, which featured prominently in the election manifestos and
debates, seem to inform either the stampede or the subsequent appointments.
greatest message of the 2019 elections lies in the numbers of eligible and registered
voters who chose to stay away. By world standards our turnout was not bad, we
are told. On the contrary, I suggest that we should eschew self-congratulations on
account of our supposedly above world-average 65% turnout. We have many reasons
to stop and ponder.
voted for the ANC this time around. But there are 10 million eligible voters who
couldn't be bothered to register. Add another 10 million who registered to vote
but actually never did. This means there are 20 million votes that got away.
parallel election, with 20 million voters more could have been held. Now, that
puts the proportion of votes and the percentages received by the 14 parties
whose candidates will populate our National Assembly seats into perspective. Indeed,
it puts the 57% proportional majority of the ANC into perspective.
One of the
most lamentable nuances about the 20 million that got away, is that less that
20% of eligible first-time voters, that is, young people, actually registered
Stay-away voters not apathetic
fatigue" is indeed a global phenomenon. But in many countries, voter
apathy goes hand in glove with political apathy. But political apathy is the
last thing South Africans can be accused of.
day, there are South Africans out in the streets protesting and contesting the
abuse of power – a feat we maintained right up to the day of the elections.
There is probably no living South African who has never been involved in or affected
by protest. I bet this reality may not resonate with many Swiss and Singaporean
citizens. My guess is that very few of the 20 million South Africans who stayed
away have never been touched by protests – as participants, spectators or as "victims".
barriers to registration and voting notwithstanding, South African voter absenteeism
must be understood first and foremost as strategic, informed and intended.
Their absence is of an articulate and eloquent nature. Though we may not have
reached the levels of Tunisia, South Korea, Algeria, Sudan and Egypt, South
African social and political activists – especially the youth – are among the
few in the world who can translate social media activism into feet-on-the-ground
and vice versa.
African political system has recently been brought to the brink of illegitimacy,
while the economic system has been comatose for a long time. This, thanks to a government-sponsored
programme to destroy state agencies and departments in order to capture the entire
state and redirect its resources for the benefit of a few individuals and
families. It was sold to the general populace as radical economic
We now know
that the main state capture project – generally associated with the Gupta
brothers – forked off into a thousand offshoots, inspiring many copycat
programmes across the provinces, municipalities, state-owned enterprises (SOEs),
political parties and the private sector. In a political environment in which
all the major political parties increasingly appear to have a lot in common
when it comes to a predilection to opulence, unethical behaviour and
corruption, is it surprising that many South Africans chose to exercise their
democratic right not to vote?
most devastating effect of the state capture project was the extent to which government
departments and SOEs, including SARS, were deliberately and systematically rendered
inefficient and ineffective. It was, for example, quite sad, to watch the Department
of Home Affairs in a comical and last-minute clamour to issue ID documents on
the eve and on the day of the elections.
still dream of Mandela's covenant
All of the
above notwithstanding, we must still make sense of the fact that nationally, 10
million out of 17 million South Africans rooted for the ANC, 2.5 million for
the DA, and just under two million for the EFF.
that the majority of those who turned out to vote, continue to believe that,
their difference of tone and emphasis notwithstanding, the covenant of which
Mandela spoke in his inauguration speech, is safer in the combined hands of the ANC, DA and the EFF.
defined that covenant in these words: "We enter into a covenant that we
shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will
be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their
inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and
the world." Needless to say, we are nowhere near the fulfilment of that
national covenant – not in terms of race, gender, class and the urban rural
these results seem to suggest that a fair majority of South Africans still hold
on to the dream epitomised in the Mandela covenant.
If the ANC still
represents, for the average South African voter who turns up on elections day,
the "best" vehicle available for the attainment of the Mandela dream,
an increasing number of South African voters will no longer entrust this dream entirely
or only to the ANC. It seems to me that, as well as the ANC's neo-liberal economic
nationalism, South African voters need the insurance and the assurance of the
DA's liberalism, the EFF's boiling anger, the IFP's traditionalism and the FF
Plus's white minority "slaan terug" politics. All South African
political parties, especially the ruling party have to take into account, the
political dynamics represented not only in the top five, but in all 14 parties
with seats in Parliament.
If I may
give a self-evident hint to all political parties in the South African
political terrain, inside and outside Parliament: Forget about the 17 million
who recently voted. They are likely to vote in the same general pattern at the
slightest provocation. However, there are 20 million voters out there – battered,
weary, dormant, despondent and gatvol.
They are looking for a leadership that will take them to Mandela's land of promise.
- Professor Tinyiko Maluleke is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Pretoria Center for the Advancement of Scholarship. Follow him on Twitter @ProfTinyiko
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