Democracy has its flaws, with voter apathy right up there on the list of challenges when it is time for a change in a country’s leadership. South Africa has a serious case of voter apathy, it seems, with ballot box statistics indicating that citizens are slowly but steadily losing interest in using their hard-won right to vote. This was revealed by blogger Graham Sell, who has crunched the numbers going back to the first democratic election. Even last year’s local government election, which shifted the balance of power in some areas from the dominant ANC to other parties, shows the signs of the political fatigue that has gripped the nation. Who can blame those who keep up-to-date with the news and are so tired of hearing one story after the next about political corruption – saying ‘no more’ to news about President Jacob Zuma and friends? Rural citizens, meanwhile, perhaps find it hard to fathom that only one vote can make a difference. Ultimately, the masses have traditionally voted along the lines of party support rather than according to individual preference. Sell shares fascinating analysis that indicates that opposition parties like the DA may be close to hitting a limit of support. Ultimately, voter apathy is a bigger risk to the ANC than voters who support other parties, says Sell. He concludes that the only way to reconfigure the balance of power so that the ruling party can be kept in check by other politicians is to make adjustments to the constitution. – Jackie Cameron
By Graham Sell*
Kakcophony – a harsh, discordant mixture of sounds made by politicians at election time
The oftentimes ridiculous bleating of politicians prompted my wife to ask “Does anything good ever come out of politics?” Offhand, I couldn’t think of anything, so it was one of those very rare occasions, according to her, where I was left speechless.
Unsurprisingly, political noise levels are again rising rapidly, and will no doubt reach a crescendo in December this year when we will know who is to be South Africa’s next president. This alone is enough incentive for me to rediscover my voice.
While there are a good number of people hoping, and some actually believing, that we will soon see an end to ANC misrule, a look at previous election results indicates that they will almost certainly retain a majority of seats in Parliament in 2019.
The hope and belief that change is imminent stems from a perception that opposition parties, the DA and EFF in particular, are rapidly gaining support, while the ANC is rapidly losing support.
Using voter turnout numbers for 2014 National and 2016 Local Government elections as the benchmark for today’s optimism, we are told that:
- DA support increased from 21.9% in the 2014 National elections, to 26.8% just two years later in the Local Government elections.
- The EFF debuted in 2014 with an initial 6.3% following, rising to 8.1% in 2016.
- ANC support on the other hand dropped from 61.3% in the 2014 to 53.3% in 2016, so they are now on the brink of losing their majority in 2019.
The facts of the matter are that when trumpeting electoral “gains” and “losses”, politicians and mainstream media are misdirecting us.
With the exception of a recent and very eloquent report written by Gareth van Onselen that touches on this subject, I claim it is misdirection because neither politicians, nor the majority of mainstream media, make reference to the electoral anomaly of voter turnout differences between the National/Provincial elections, and Local Government elections.
To understand this particular dynamic of our flawed electoral system, take a look at voting statistics since the advent of our democracy.
Apart from 1994, where the excitement of the majority being able to vote for the first time ensured a 99% turnout of registered voters, all other alternating elections have settled into much the same pattern.
|1994||19 726 610||19 533 498||99.0%||1995/6||17 782 694||8 675 567||48.8%|
|1999||18 172 751||16 228 462||89.3%||2000||18 511 975||8 752 223||47.3%|
|2004||20 674 926||15 863 558||76.7%||2006||21 054 957||9 857 074||46.8%|
|2009||23 181 997||17 919 966||77.3%||2011||23 139 142||13 353 987||57.7%|
|2014||25 388 082||18 654 772||73.5%||2016||26 333 353||14 959 033||56.8%|
The first high-level pattern is very obvious – fewer people bother to vote in Local Government elections than in National/Provincial elections. This reflects in the sorry state of Local Government where corruption, financial mismanagement, and political ineptitude are spawned by a systemic lack of direct political accountability.
The second noticeable pattern is that voter turnout rises, albeit slightly, when a change of National President is involved. Thabo Mbeki’s first National election had a still-healthy 89.3% turnout that declined to 76.7% for his second term. Similarly, but less dramatically, an increase to 77.3% turnout for Jacob Zuma the first time around, dropped to 73.5% for his second term.
If they choose wisely, a new ANC presidential candidate for 2019 hints at an uptick in turnout, which is more advantageous to the ANC than to the opposition.
The third, perhaps less obvious but more alarming pattern, is that the number of registered voters failing to vote in National elections (26.5% in 2014) has become the fastest growing “political” sector in South Africa.
The registered voter versus turnout anomaly cannot be ignored when evaluating so-called political “gains” because, as is demonstrated below, genuine reflections of political party performance can only be in comparison to the number of registered voters, not voter turnout.
If party support is recalculated using the number of registered voters as the benchmark.
- DA support stood at 16.1% of registered voters in 2014, declining to 15.2% in 2016;
- EFF support peaked at 4.6% in both elections; and
- Support for the ANC dropped from 45% (already a minority government?) in 2014 to 30.3% in 2016.
Relative to the number of registered voters, I believe the EFF will always be, at best, a 5% fringe party. I also believe that in its present form the DA is approaching its support ceiling.
Even if I am only half-right, this means that the current and very real threat to the ANC does not come from the opposition, but rather from those who choose not to vote. These people also pose the most significant threat to the future direction of democracy in South Africa.
If the politically moderate population loses faith with our present version of democracy and stops voting, it opens the door for all sorts of fringe elements to take the gap with populist, divisive, and perhaps even violent rhetoric.
As their grip on power slips further, we can confidently anticipate an escalation in the already highly populist rhetoric coming out of Luthuli House which, if it hasn’t occurred to you yet, will take their “ideology” ever closer to that of the EFF.
With this in mind, we need to rid ourselves of the notion that coalition governance will automatically include the DA as the controlling partner. The closer ANC and EFF ideologies become, the more likely it is that the ANC will be the coalition partner of choice for the EFF.
I believe that by standing in opposition to the ANC at local government level, the EFF has merely fired a warning shot across the bow of the ANC, to remind them of who might be holding the high cards in the far more important 2019 National/Provincial elections.
In addition, can anyone really see Julius Malema turning down the opportunity to wield significant influence over the ANC as “Kingmaker”, while at the same time being given ANC-style access to state resources? Just asking…..
The Positive Revolution
What we really need is a positive political revolution.
- A revolution that will bring enforceable political accountability, not just pay lip-service to it.
- A revolution that places limits on the executive powers of the single individual occupying the Office of the State President.
- A positive revolution where it will no longer be enough for politicians to gain points through attack or being negative
- A positive revolution that will bring people back to the polling stations because their vote really does count.
We have a wonderful, world-renowned Constitution, but that doesn’t mean that we should not be looking at ways to further improve it. It is in this context that I have previously called for a civil society-led review of the political dispensation contained in the Constitution, nothing more.
The current dispensation assumes ethical leadership and political self-policing, so contains no provision to enforce accountability when politicians, particularly senior politicians, fail to live up to their oath of office.
Nkandlagate, Nenegate, and the State of Capture report by the Public Protector alone, provide more than enough motivation for us to improve our Constitution to correct this oversight.
Whether or not we expect much to change politically after the 2019 National elections, it is still imperative that we rethink the rules under which politicians are allowed to operate. We must have enforceable accountability, with swift and meaningful retribution for any breach of trust.
There are so many civil organisations out there that can, and should be driving this initiative. Will any of them have the courage to step up to the plate? It will be a hard road to walk, but as Madiba said “It is always impossible until it is done”
* Graham Sell is author of the anti-PR blog Disconnected Democracy.
 There are also large numbers of voting age people who have not even bothered to register, which would make the picture even bleaker.
 When the positive revolution takes hold it will no longer be enough for politicians to gain points through attack or being negative. Politicians will be expected to be constructive. (The Positive Revolution – Edward De Bono)