Maverick Citizen


The time is now — democratic participation could make or break SA in the lead-up to elections 2024

The time is now — democratic participation could make or break SA in the lead-up to elections 2024
From left to right: Mark Heywood, Maverick Citizen Editor. Mbali Ntuli, CEO and founder, Ground Work Collective. Lindiwe Mazibuko, Co- founder and CEO, Futurelect. (Photos: Joyrene Kramer / Sebabatso Mosamo / Sunday Times)

South Africa’s 2024 elections could mark a fork in the road for the political system — will our democracy mature or backslide? Political experts Lindiwe Mazibuko and Mbali Ntuli say it’s up to the country’s voters to decide, through active democratic participation both during and in between elections.

“It’s the 30th anniversary of our democratic system… it’s a huge milestone. So, it’s an opportune moment for us to look back at what the gains have been, what the losses have been; the successes and the failures. And also to start to think about what it means to be a maturing democracy.”

These were the words of Lindiwe Mazibuko, CEO and co-founder of Futurelect, at a Daily Maverick webinar on the significance of South Africa’s 2024 general elections. The event, “Showdown 2024: Why voter registration and education needs to start now”, saw Mazibuko speaking alongside CEO and founder of the Ground Work Collective, Mbali Ntuli. Maverick Citizen editor Mark Heywood hosted the session. 

South Africa has long enjoyed its status as the “new kid on the block” in democratic circles, according to Mazibuko, but now a new generation of young people who are largely disillusioned with the gains of democracy — particularly on an economic front — is revealing its failures.

“We’re in a moment where there’s such a toxic information flow around the concept of democracy. There are competing ideas about what it is that Africa needs in terms of governance, but what we know from the research in terms of what the outcomes of democracy versus autocracy… is that we want democracy, we want self-determination. We have been interfered with as a country and as a continent for many generations, and we are eager to chart our own way forward,” she said.

Ntuli pointed out that most liberation parties in Africa had a “shelf-life” of about 27 to 30 years, after which their countries could go one of two ways: on to an era of greater democratic maturity, or backwards into a more autocratic state.

“When you look at the surveys done by places like Afrobarometer… 72% of young people being surveyed said that they would forgo elections and give up democracy if somebody could deliver and promise them a job, housing or security,” she said.

“It tells you how very close we are to being… in the realm of ‘anything could happen’, if we had a leader or a party that… preyed on those kinds of instincts.”

With less than a year to go until the 2024 general elections, Heywood pointed out that change would not come in one day, but needed to begin in the present. “Even though we are many months away, there’s a lot of expectation around this election… There’s a huge amount that has to be done,” he said.

Youth participation

Only 12-million of the 26-million registered voters in South Africa turned out for the 2021 local elections. Even with certain complicating factors, such as the Covid-19 pandemic and poor weather, these numbers should not have been so low, according to Mazibuko.

“There were 3-million fewer people who voted in 2021, than did in the last local election… in 2016. These are devastating numbers,” she said. “The number of people who vote declines with every successive election.”

However, statistics suggest that people who register as a voter for the first time have an 85% chance of turning out to vote, says Ntuli. Getting young people in the 18-to-35-years age group to register is therefore very important.

“We have an electorate that’s exiting the voters’ roll — people are dying, people are emigrating, the age group between 45 and 59 is so disabused by what they’ve seen happen in the country that they just basically stay at home… And so we need to make sure that young people understand… if you don’’t go out and vote, it doesn’t mean anything to anyone. In fact, it’s great for some political parties, because it means that they can just get out their particular voters and continue with the status quo,” she said.

Both Mazibuko and Ntuli emphasised that young people were not apathetic, despite their low participation in elections. Rather, they had turned to practising forms of politics outside the formal democratic process.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Voter apathy — especially among the young — threatens democracy in Africa

“I just want to reiterate the difference between apathy and disillusionment. Young people are not apathetic about politics — they are profoundly and deeply politically engaged. They are activists. They are agitators. What they have lost faith in or they never had faith in is the ability of their votes at the ballot and their participation in formal democratic processes in between elections to effect change,” explained Mazibuko.

“That’s one of those chicken and egg things. You can only see the impact of your vote if you turn out en masse. You can’t not turn out and then say my vote doesn’t count for anything. Well, of course, it doesn’t count for anything — you never voted.”

Civic education 

A key driver of low democratic participation, both among the youth and older generations, is the lack of civic education for South Africans. This form of education has largely been left to political parties and the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC).

“There are so many systems that we have in this country for holding government accountable, but we don’t use them because we have no civic education,” said Mazibuko. 

“We have no statutory body teaching civics and we have no civics in school. We turn 18 and we’re expected to just magically know how to make voting decisions and how to participate in the democratic process. And this is the moment… where we need to make that a part of our democratic culture before it becomes easily displaced by these narratives about autocracy.

“You can’t use power that you don’t even know that you have.”

Ntuli pointed to the importance of knowing that politics affected every aspect of daily life, from access to electricity and water, to having safe forms of transport. People needed to know how to access council meetings, provincial legislature or Parliament; the roles and responsibilities of their ward councillors; and what mechanisms could be used to hold politicians to account.

“You take out the idea that political parties must be the sole entrance into being able to have any kind of political empowerment or motivation. That’s what I think is important and what has been missing in our country,” said Ntuli.

Mazibuko echoed these sentiments, saying, “You, the ordinary South African voter over the age of 18 on the voters’ roll, can not only vote from election to election, you can be part of decision-making in between elections. There’s been a constitutional court judgement slamming Parliament for not doing enough public consultation and in fact, many pieces of law, and even some sections of the Constitution, have been reversed or are up for reversal on the basis of public participation.”

Both the Ground Work Collective and Futurelect are doing important work to further civic education and democratic participation. Representatives of the Ground Work Collective are going into communities and registering people to vote, according to Ntuli. They often include fun and engaging elements in their campaigns, such as DJs and local radio, to bring young voters on board.

Futurelect has designed an app, named after the organisation, which allows access to a civic education programme, according to Mazibuko. There are three parts to the course, focused on the democratic system, elections and participatory democracy, respectively. They are aiming to release the app by the end of September.

“We are peer reviewing our civic education programme to make sure, first of all, that it covers all the bases; that it reflects both the letter and the spirit of the law and the Constitution; and then thirdly, that it’s fun and beautiful and easy to do,” said Mazibuko. 

“We are hoping to get the app zero-rated so that people don’t have to use data to download it… We had a roundtable last week of about 30 [civil society] organisations where we spoke to them about what their needs would be, once we’ve launched the app, if they want to deliver the content in person.”

Ntuli encouraged all South Africans to start within their own homes when it came to registering new voters. Talking about politics with family members could go a long way in getting people actively involved in democratic processes.

“It needs to be… something that becomes part of our culture — that you speak about politics, and… we’re not uncomfortable,” she said. “We don’t say things like, ‘Oh, I don’t really like politics’. We need to get past that now because we are on the verge of what could be potentially catastrophic for all of us.” DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Graham McIntosh says:

    I was part of the Webinar. Both these competent, strong and positive women have significant Fathers — Lindiwe’s, an Anglican Bishop and Imbali’s a successful Entrepreneur out of the tough competitive capitalist world of the taxi industry. Helen Zille as another strong woman, helped to shape their political values.

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