South Africa


Let’s pray that voting in SA’s 2024 elections doesn’t feel like the triumph of hope over experience

Let’s pray that voting in SA’s 2024 elections doesn’t feel like the triumph of hope over experience
Voters queue to cast their ballots during the national election on 22 April 2009 in Alexandra, South Africa. (Photo: John Moore / Getty Images)

Democracy is about much more than voting in an election every few years. Democracy is about holding accountable those who wield power. It is about making trouble, asking questions, demanding answers, taking part. It requires work and commitment, and the capacity to deal with endless disappointment.

Next year in May or June, I will dutifully go to my polling station on election day to cast my vote in the national and provincial elections. As was the case in the past few local government, provincial and national elections, I will probably only decide who to vote for at the last minute. I might again split my vote for strategic or other reasons.

Although I do hope this time will be different, my decision may well again be a reluctant one, largely based on the vague hope that I am casting my vote for a candidate or party that might not be as bad as the other candidates and parties on the ballot.

I will probably return home and read a book or binge-watch a bad Netflix series with a nagging feeling that my vote will make no difference to how my province or my country will be governed for the next five years. I will do so fully aware that I have far less reason to feel that my voice does not matter than most citizens do.

When I vote next year, I will probably be part of the minority of eligible voters – which includes the more than 13 million eligible voters who are not registered to vote – to do so (roughly 47% of eligible voters cast their ballots in the 2019 election). 

One often hears people say that these non-voters only have themselves to blame for the incompetent, corrupt or otherwise compromised government they are saddled with and that such non-voters have no right to complain.

I am not sure this is correct, and that a decision to vote is necessarily more rational than a decision not to vote. (Voting can feel like the triumph of hope over experience.) There are, in fact, many valid reasons for South African citizens to believe that their vote will not matter much because it will not change anything, or will not change anything important to them.

That this is so, is troubling, not least because the legitimacy of a democratic system of government hinges on the perceived ability of that system to produce a responsive and accountable government capable of (and willing to) address the needs of voters and the communities they live in, in a meaningful way.

The problem is not unique to South Africa, although it arguably manifests here in unique ways. Scholars often point to the election of Donald Trump in the United States, Narendra Modi in India and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, as well as the rise in the popularity of far-right “populist” parties in parts of Europe, as evidence for the contention that democracy is in crisis across the world.

This view reflects rising voter disaffection with traditional politics and political parties and a growing belief among citizens that the system is rigged in favour of “elites” and thus not capable (or no longer capable) of ensuring the kind of economic prosperity they have come to expect for themselves and those who look like them and share their values.

The argument here seems to be that many disaffected voters in such countries either turn away from politics altogether or throw their weight behind one or other populist charlatan like Trump, Bolsonaro or Modi who promise to change everything.

Such voters, so the argument goes, often develop a blind, cult-like, devotion to the leader because they are seduced by the fantasy that all their troubles will go away once the leader has “dealt” with some or other “enemy” (immigrants, black people, white people, Muslims, scientists, the media, judges) who they had come to believe is the cause of all their misery.

In one version of this story, these voters come to believe that the democratic system itself needs to be dismantled on the grounds that it is fundamentally “rigged” to serve the interests of a small group of people, or because it no longer serves the interests of those who really matter – themselves.

In this view, governments ignore the needs of voters because they merely implement decisions, often taken in secret, by powerful people outside government who control the media, the professions, the judiciary, and ultimately the politicians. (In a more extreme version of this story, the “rigging” is part of a vast but secretive conspiracy by dark forces who are out to destroy the world as we know it, one vaccine, one lockdown, one World Bank loan, one woke book at a time.)  

But here is the catch. There is some evidence that it is not only populist voters who may be losing faith in the democratic system of government, and in the power of their vote to change things for the better.

To me, not voting would feel like a defeat, like an acceptance that the only thing that truly matters in our society is wealth, social status and access to the use of force.

This is very much the case in South Africa where more than 50% of eligible voters will not vote in South Africa’s national and provincial elections next year, despite (or maybe partly because of) the shocking state of governance in most parts of the country, and despite the possibility that the ANC could lose its overall majority in the National Assembly and in one or two provincial legislatures.

One can only hope that disaffected voters will have a change of heart and will flock to the polls next year to punish the governing party for its woeful governance record and for its failure to meet even the most basic needs of those whose (largely racialised) lack of access to resources make them most dependent on government. 

But I am not optimistic that this will happen, and not only because the national leaders of the two largest opposition parties appear to do everything they can to convince the overwhelming majority of voters not to vote for their party.

I would have been more optimistic had there been no factual basis for some of the populist beliefs and attitudes described (or caricatured) above, and had there been no reason to worry that the populists might have a point when they claim that democratic systems of government do not always deliver what they promise to deliver – an open, accountable, responsive and effective government that works for the benefit of all, not the few.

While the scapegoating of vulnerable groups (in both the United States and South Africa, black immigrants seem to be the preferred target) is despicable as well as irrational, it is not so strange that voters would conclude that the system was designed for, and now disproportionately benefits, social, economic and political elites.

When I refer to elites in the South African context, I have in mind, among others, politicians, business owners, members of the professions, middle-class suburbanites with Twitter accounts, journalists, academics, traditional leaders, teachers, civil servants, white “civil rights” organisations, NGOs and anyone else with the funds to litigate before the courts.

As in many other democracies, the legitimacy of the democratic system is also threatened by the perceived corrupting influence of money on the system – through both illegal and legal means.

In South Africa, larger political parties are beholden to large donors who, it can be assumed, will seldom continue funding a party if the party acts against the interests of the donor. Endemic corruption and nepotism arguably pose an even bigger threat to the legitimacy of the system.

A voter who notices that their neighbour’s underqualified son got a well-paying job through ANC connections, or that the police are not investigating the assault on her daughter because the perpetrator is a politically connected businessman, would be hard-pressed to trust the system, more so if they have seen no evidence that ousting the ANC from government would end corruption.

Moreover, I would argue that white – and class – supremacy still permeates our society. It does not instil confidence in the system when the government and most of the media treat the death of one or two middle-class white children in a building collapse as a national crisis, but metaphorically shrug their shoulders when 30 poor and/or black people are killed in a gas explosion or a fire. (If the dead black people are foreign nationals, populist voters are likely to blame them for their own deaths.)

There is also evidence that the most effective (legal) way to hold politicians accountable is to turn to the courts and the Constitution, an option only available to the wealthy or to those lucky enough to have secured the support of an NGO (thank goodness for NGOs).  

Apart from becoming a politician, or making pots of money to bribe those politicians with, seemingly the most effective other option – violent protest – is unlawful and potentially lethal (police officers seem to become trigger-happy when confronted by poor black protesters).

And yet, despite all its problems, I think it would be a terrible mistake to give up on democracy. 

I have long accepted that most voters are more likely than not to make choices that go against their self-interest, or that I find otherwise baffling. But what do I know, in any case?

What I do know is that the voting aspect of democracy matters as it does matter who governs (even if it does not always matter nearly as much as one would hope it would), and because really bad people do get voted out of office if the election process is relatively free and fair (Trump and Bolsonaro are two recent examples of this).  

Second, it is important to remember that democracy is about much more than voting in an election every few years. Having a say, through your vote, in who leads the government, is an important but limited part of any democracy.

Democracy is about having a say (or at least the possibility of having a say) in important issues that impact you and those around you, whether the immediate decision is taken by an elected representative in government or somebody else. It is about using all the (legal) mechanisms at one’s disposal (to the extent resources permit) to hold those who wield power accountable.

It is about making trouble, asking questions, demanding answers, taking part. (Trying to convince people not to vote would, I guess, also be a form of “taking part”.)

It requires work and commitment and the capacity to deal with endless disappointment.

Active citizenship is a term often invoked as an empty Viva-Mandela Rainbow-Nation cliché, but in my view, democracy is more likely to serve the interest of all citizens (or less likely to serve only the interest of selected elites) if citizens get involved in the life of their community and of the nation more broadly. 

Of course, being an active citizen can take myriad forms – including voting in national, provincial and local government elections.

I have voted in every election since 1994, despite often worrying that my vote might not make any difference, reckoning that it is easy to do so and that it is not likely to make things worse. (It also helps to remind myself that voting is just one way to get involved and that my privilege makes it possible for me to be an active citizen in numerous other ways too.)

But, if I am honest, I also vote out of stubbornness. 

To me, not voting would feel like a defeat, like an acceptance that the only thing that truly matters in our society is wealth, social status and access to the use of force.

I may be deluding myself, but I am not yet ready to accept this. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Glad you are a man of prayer, Pierre, and therefore hope. What you have expressed here is important for the many who already think all is lost. As an elder I thank you for your courage and wisdom for where there is no hope there is only strife. I’m praying with you that more SA’s would vote and will vote for change, though I’m bereft of any logical choices to date. There’s time. Hope. And thank you.

  • Niek Joubert says:

    Currently the majority of voters keep on voting for their misery, only to “actively” participate in (often violent) protests against the very same political party. Surely that is not what the good professor has in mind?

  • Denise Smit says:

    As a UCT academic of course you should also be white people bashing. I am a white person and my thoughts are like yours except the part where everything white people do is to the detriment of others. I am middle class and do not have money to litigate for anything. You are woke. Denise Smit

  • Stuart Hulley-Miller says:

    Support what you say but we need to remember that in South Africa our vote does not have the value it should have due to our system. In the ruling parties case their supporters vote for the party and then the party decides who fits where in the pecking order. Once those people are appointed they are accountable only to the party elite and may never vote with their conscience or against the party line. Concentrated party propaganda distorts the reality of democracy and party dynamics. The voters give up and do nothing because effectively, the elector has no say.

  • Patterson Alan John says:

    My prediction:
    The ANC will lose some support to fall below the 50% level.
    The EFF will gain a further 4% to 5% to achieve about 15%.
    Julius Malema will be the King-maker and offer to join the ANC in a coalition, provided he is made Vice-President. Without that agreed, the ANC will be in trouble.
    Then Juju will exert his political demands and the ANC will be held to ransom along with South Africa!
    The collapse of South Africa is in the making in 2024.
    The alternative?
    The DA coalition agrees to govern with the ANC.
    Which might be the best outcome?

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