South Africa


South Africans increasingly think their vote makes no difference – IJR survey

‘Your X Is Your Say’ is displayed on a screen at the Independent Electoral Commission national results centre in Pretoria on 9 May 2019, the day after the national elections. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The South African Reconciliation Barometer 2019 survey found that while more South Africans are losing trust in the electoral system, they are more engaged at local level.

The South African Reconciliation Barometer 2019 survey found that 58% of South Africans surveyed believed that their votes didn’t make a difference. In 2017, 51% of respondents didn’t think their vote made a difference. In 2015 it was 48%.

The 2019 survey findings – released every two years – were discussed at a webinar on Thursday 13 August.

This despondency was reflected in the high numbers of people who didn’t vote in the previous national elections. In the 2019 national elections, six million young people didn’t vote. In the 2014 national elections about seven million people weren’t registered voters.

This is echoed in how few students participate in voting for students’ representatives at higher learning institutions. For instance, in 2019, only 25% of the student population at the University of the Free State voted for student representatives.

Speaking at the webinar, barometer project leader Mikhail Moosa said even though more voters were not going to vote on election days, people are more engaged in local politics.

“It’s important to understand that politics happen outside of elections as well,” said Moosa.

Of the respondents, 53.6%  said that they had attended a community meeting and 41% had gathered together to raise an issue. In the 2017 SARB survey, 54.8% of the respondents had attended a community meeting, while 41.5% of the respondents said they had gathered together to raise an issue. 

While people seem to think that they can make an effective change participating in local issues, this is harder to do under lockdown, noted Moosa.

Seventy-one percent of respondents agreed with the statement that ordinary South Africans can rely on one another rather than political elites. Moosa said this was not surprising as the corruption scandals and the lack of accountability had “dented the trust” citizens had in politicians.

“Democracy isn’t just a conceptual idea, it’s a lived reality. The disillusionment we’re seeing [among citizens] is because the promised goods and the promised better life for all haven’t been delivered,” added Paul Kariuki, the director of Democracy Development Programme, an NGO that offers education on democracy.

Kariuki also said that citizens have power and should not be disillusioned:

“Not voting is to our detriment. Despite how disillusioned we are, we need to vote.”

Moosa regards the 2021 local government elections as critical for the country’s politics. 

“There’ll be lower voter turnout, more unregistered voters as people have less faith in electoral politics, and local-level mobilisation will become even more important sites of politics,” said Moosa. DM