ROAD TO ELECTIONS
Civil society gears up for South Africa’s 2024 polls: Vote. Participate. Activate.
There has already been much talk about why 2024 should be a ‘watershed election’ in South Africa, as well as about the amendments to the Electoral Act which allow independent candidates to stand. However, if 2024 is to be the change-election that so many people hope it will be, then the biggest challenge is to persuade enough disaffected voters, especially the young, to first register and then to vote.
Research reports, such as Afrobarometer’s report on Levels of Trust in Institutions, South Africa, 2021, consistently show how deeply people are disaffected with our political system. In this context, getting millions more informed people onto the voter’s roll, regardless of how they vote, may be the only way to shake up voting patterns.
Fortunately, a groundswell in civil society is at last turning into concrete plans.
Last week, Futurelect, an organisation led by the powerful duo of Lindiwe Mazibuko and Dr Sithembile Mbete, presented its civic education programme before a group of 30 organisations and activists. Among those present were the Black Sash, the Constitution Hill Trust, Defend Our Democracy, the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Rivonia Circle, the South African Council of Churches, SECTION27 and the University of Johannesburg.
Mazibuko explained to the meeting that Futurelect is seeking civil society partners to reach over a million South Africans and “significantly increase the number of young people under 35 who register to vote and then proceed to participate in the election”.
The voter mobilisation campaign, a first in South Africa’s short history of democratic elections, takes as its raison d’etre recognition that democracy faces a huge crisis of confidence in SA and across the world. This is leading millions of people to opt out of voting and/or turn to right-wing populism. Futurelect describes this as a “civic participation challenge”.
In South Africa, they cite findings from surveys by the Human Sciences Research Council’s Voter Participation Survey 2008-2021, including that:
- In the 2021 local government elections, there was a reduction of three million people in the voter turnout, with only 12 million people (less than half of those registered to vote) casting their vote, compared to 16 million in 2016.
- In 2021, registered voters made up only 63.9% of the voting-age population;
- Only 25% of people “expressed satisfaction with the way democracy is working (down from 45% in 2003)”.
- Sixty-three percent of people believe “voting is meaningless because no politician can be trusted” – up from 20% in 2004.
In this context, says Mazibuko, it seems nonsensical that – in a pre-election year – the Electoral Commission of SA has had its funding cut by R240 million, and is expecting a similar cut in 2024/25.
So, their message is that if civil society organisations don’t do voter education, nobody else will. And the stakes are very high: democracy and social justice depend on it.
South Africa is not alone: there are more than 70 elections due across the world in 2024.
To alter the disengagement trajectory, Futurelect presented its plans to plug the “civic education gap” with a programme to “empower young people and women to: “Vote. Participate. Activate.”
In partnership with M&C Saatchi Abel, they have developed a soon-to-be-launched app that promises “a beautiful, intuitive and enjoyable learning platform which can inform and ignite young people’s political participation … one of the most effective ways we can increase their civic participation and enable their voices to be heard”.
Respected political analyst, “Dr Ste” (Sithembile Mbete), is the face of the free people’s university that the app will open up, offering a curriculum of “courses that provide lucid, easily accessible knowledge on the workings of politics and government and how to participate actively in the democratic process”.
At the soft launch last week, they offered several teasers of a novel media campaign to entice people to the app that will go live in October.
Under the theme, “Mzansi’s your house”, it calls on voters to: “Know the rules to make the rules”; “Choose who you open the door for”, and “Stop people sitting on the fence”.
One immediate challenge – “our number one goal”, they say – will be to reach an agreement with cell phone networks to zero-rate the platform. Talks have already been initiated in this regard.
Enter the Ground Work Collective
Futurelect are not the only people working hard to reinvigorate democracy.
On another front is the Ground Work Collective (GWC) led by former KwaZulu-Natal MPL, Mbali Ntuli.
Ntuli told Maverick Citizen that she had left party politics in 2022 “frustrated by the lack of urgency” and intent on “taking the fight to the streets”.
The GWC, the organisation she founded in 2022, is now live and kicking.
Based in KZN, but with a nationwide vision and plan of action, it works on several fronts: food production, civic education and participation, and skills development and entrepreneurship. Much of its focus is on schools and young people.
However, with the clock ticking towards May 2024, its most ambitious programme now is to register 500,000 new young voters, “ensuring that the most pressing issues pertaining to this core youth demographic (jobs, future economic and social prospects, and the ability to self-actualise without socio-economic barriers) are properly addressed”.
Ntuli believes that “the injection of more youth into the electorate, where they are currently underrepresented, would elevate these most pressing issues and compel the political players to be more responsive to them”.
Ntuli’s affiliation is no longer to any political party (like Mazibuko, she was once a DA MP) but to the notion of citizen empowerment in the system and to participatory democracy itself.
Like Futurelect, the GWC is not simply seeking to bolster the numbers of voters but to ensure that a new generation of voters are well-informed and empowered. They both agree that 2024 is the beginning of a journey to reclaiming democracy, not just a once-off vote.
This is necessary, says Mbali, because existing parties “are not incentivised to register new people”.
She believes that people on the voters’ roll have already to a large extent decided on their party loyalties. It’s those not voting and not yet registered who offer the promise of a revolution.
A new census due this month is expected to count up to 40 million people of voting age, meaning that there are 14 million South Africans eligible – but not registered – to vote.
But Ntuli’s vision is not just a theoretical one. Her #X_Change campaign is already well under way.
During a pilot programme targeting young people across three rural and urban districts of KwaZulu Natal in June and July, Ntuli reports that “we managed to successfully register 5,729 people in physical registrations and 1,392 online/digital registrations, a total of 7,121 new registrations”, over a period of 20 days.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Young KZN voters get concert as reward for registering for 2024
GWC’s target had been 10,000, but schools and universities pulled out at the last minute due to a change in exam times.
Says Ntuli: “At the average number of registrations done per day, the university and school numbers would have helped us reach 10,000 physical registrations easily.”
“One of the exciting discoveries from the campaign is that there is huge potential for digital onboarding of voters. Our website link was enabled to push voters through to the IEC.
“The IEC has not had that many pushes from an organisation in such a short period of time outside of political parties during election campaigns. We have engaged some digital agencies and we estimate that in six months we could reach a potential five million unique citizens going forward.
“This pilot campaign has proved the proof of concept. With our intention to scale up to having four teams on the ground simultaneously, we will be on track to reach 500,000 new registrations over the next 10 months before the voter’s roll is likely to close.
“The digital registrations could range anywhere from 500,000 to a million, depending on the campaign.”
Pulling the trigger on voter mobilisation
The positive news is that these and other civil society-driven initiatives are converging and finding a common purpose.
Ntuli was among the participants at the Futurelect meeting, all of whom expressed excitement about collaboration and the campaigns that were unveiled.
“We can play a role in implementing big systems change,” said one.
“There’s a need to build a social movement to vote, that can be repurposed after the election to hold politicians accountable and ensure delivery,” said another.
In addition in July, My Vote Counts, an NGO focusing on electoral issues, convened 55 representatives of left-leaning social movements, trade union federations and NGOs.
According to a report of that meeting (available here), “The convening was rooted in people’s struggles for water, electricity, land and housing, jobs, education and sanitation. These struggles were linked to the state of democracy, as we move towards the 2024 general elections, which will be our most consequential elections since 1994.
At the end of a three-day retreat, it was agreed that “our collective campaigns towards the 2024 elections will be guided by the following objectives”:
- Use the elections to centre people’s demands.
- Organise mass voter turnout.
- Protect the integrity of the election process.
- Build a political alternative beyond 2024.
There is widespread speculation that the 2024 elections will take place sometime during May. That is only eight or nine months from now. The question is whether these initiatives can coalesce and share the tools and insights they are developing and take their campaigns to poor communities across nine provinces, to people generally excluded from politics and political debate. Or whether they will succumb to what Mazibuko calls “analysis paralysis”.
At the moment, the air holds some promise. Daily Maverick will keep readers informed of whether and when actions and on-the-ground mobilisation start to speak louder than words. DM
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