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ROAD TO 2024 ELECTIONS

Still a long way to go, says civil society in response to IEC’s 568,000 new voter registrations

Still a long way to go, says civil society in response to IEC’s  568,000 new voter registrations
A resident at the Ridgecrest Family Church in Johannesburg over voter registration weekend on 18 November 2023. (Photo: Gallo Images / Luba Lesolle)

The Electoral Commission of South Africa’s first voter registration drive at the weekend succeeded in getting more than 500,000 South Africans on the voters’ roll, with young people making up the bulk of sign-ups. But, with almost 14 million voters still unregistered, civil society believes that these numbers are not good enough.

The weekend was a flurry of activity for the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC), which held its first voter registration drive for the highly anticipated 2024 elections.

Millions of South Africans headed to voting stations in their areas or went online on 18 and 19 November to ensure their names were on the voters’ roll, with the IEC recording more than 2,904,037 registration transactions.

All in all, the IEC tallied more than 568,000 new registrations, accounting for only 19.57% of the weekend’s registration activity. However, this is 400,000 shy of the commission’s target of one million. The voters’ roll currently has 26.8 million people. 

Chief electoral officer Sy Mamabolo has hailed the commission’s first voter registration weekend as a success and said the IEC is satisfied with the turnout.

“Eligible voters registering for the first time were 568,000. This accounts for 19.57% of the total registration activity. Voters who re-registered in the same voting district were 1.4 million, and those who re-registered in a different voting district were 929,000. In other words, people who were changing their address items,” he told the media on Monday.

voter registration

A prospective first-time voter is attended to during the registration drive at the Clearview Academy voting station in Johannesburg on 18 November 2023. (Photo: Gallo Images / Luba Lesolle)

‘Woefully inadequate’

Several civil society organisations, however, are singing a different tune, saying that compared with 2019, before the local government elections when 703,794 registrations were recorded, the nation is lagging behind.

Rivonia Circle CEO Tessa Dooms said that given that there are currently 14 million unregistered people, the number of new registrations is “woefully inadequate”.

This was echoed by Ground Work Collective founder and CEO Mbali Ntuli: “In 2019, there were over 700,000 new registrations, if you compare that to this year’s registration of 568,000, we are actually still pretty much in trouble because we haven’t increased the number. In fact, we’re less than what we were  in 2019.”

Ntuli said the number of new registrations is not good enough: “We still have a long way to go, and it shows in the turnout, which was actually quite low. The majority of the people that came out this weekend were actually people that were trying to re-register.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Voter registration weekend — eight good reasons to register to vote

Acknowledging that the IEC is under immense financial pressure due to budget cuts, she added that in order to boost the voters’ roll, the call to register needs to be a yearlong endeavour and not limited to specific times.  

“You can’t think that you’re going to do this just before the election all the time and expect that you’re going to get this massive bang. It has to be something that’s ingrained in the culture of our civics in this country. The message has to be put out there in schools, in institutions of higher learning and so forth. Otherwise, it just gets lost in the ether.”

A ‘good sign’

The good news is that young people made up the bulk of South Africans who registered over the weekend, with 445,089 (78%) new registrations in the 16-to-29 category.

Lindiwe Mazibuko from Futurelects said this is a good sign, explaining that data indicates that once young people have registered, they tend to turn up on election day in large numbers.

“There’s great data about how young people register. They vote at rates of like 80%. So, half the battle is won from the perspective of young people, especially first-time voters. The younger you are when you register to vote, the more likely you are to continue voting throughout your life. It’s much more difficult to get people in their mid- to late twenties, mid- to late thirties to register to vote later in life.”

Missing link

The fact that the majority of registration interactions were people checking whether they were registered or updating their details, indicated a disconnect between engaging active voters who were already on the roll and unregistered South Africans.

Mazibuko, who believes some people choose not to participate in elections because they do not like the choices they have, said the disparity can be addressed through an informed voter base.

“People often feel like the only choices available to them are the obvious choices. They don’t know that there are new political parties. New formations and new systems for electing people are cropping up all the time, including the case that’s before the Constitutional Court about independent candidates.”

elections

The IEC tallied more than 568,000 new registrations, which is 400,000 shy of its target of one million. (Photo: Gallo Images / Darren Stewart)

Mazibuko added that citizens lack sufficient information about how to be savvy, active and participatory, and how to hold politicians accountable once they’ve been elected.

Read more in Daily Maverick: South Africans sign up to vote for change on IEC’s voter registration weekend

Dooms believes this is where civil society needs to come to the table, saying it has taken a passive role during election cycles since the first democratic polls in 1994. The political analyst said civil society has resigned itself to fighting the government once it is in power.

“I think this must change. Civil society must take an activist orientation to this election… it must be on the side of the voter. Civil society must ensure that voters have a space for them to engage each other in conversations about what we want from these elections. The elections cannot centre the political parties,” she said.

“It must centre on the issues communities are facing, the issues young people care about, and what outcomes they want.” DM

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