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Why SA’s seventh general election strengthens the case for citizens’ assemblies

Why SA’s seventh general election strengthens the case for citizens’ assemblies
IEC officials assist during the final voter registration weekend at Generations School, Sandown, on 3 February 2024 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo: Misha Jordaan / Gallo Images)

On 29 May, South Africa will hold the seventh election of its democratic era. Democratic elections are still new enough in SA to make me just a touch giddy and thrilled. And yet, some things about this election are worrying.

South Africa has 27.8 registered voters from a population of around 62 million. About 21 million South Africans are under 18, so there are 41 million adult South Africans who can vote. That means there are about 13 million South Africans who are eligible to vote but for some reason haven’t registered (yet). 

The number of registered voters before the 2019 election was 26.8 million, and the number of people who cast their vote was 17.5 million, about a 66% turnout. So, about a million new voters have registered, which seems impressive until you factor in that the population increased by 4 million between 2019 and now — and the potential voting population increased by at least 3 million. In other words, only about a third of those who are newly eligible to vote have registered. 

That’s consistent with the proportion of people who are registered but failed to turn up at the ballot box in previous elections. The number of people who are eligible to vote but do not cast a ballot has been steadily increasing at every election at an extraordinary rate. In 1999, the turnout was an eye-popping 89%. 

A 66% turnout rate is not terrible by global standards — it’s a little below average. But the disaffection rate, if you want to call it that, has appeared in SA very quickly, much quicker than in other democratic countries. In Europe, national election turnouts were around 80% for decades, and it was only in the past decade that they slipped below 70%. 

What happened? There are two things at work in SA. First, SA remains dominated, like so many other African countries and newly democratic countries around the world, by the party of liberation. That’s understandable, but it does bake a kind of hopelessness into the political system, because a single party has so much momentum and such a large purchase on the affections of voters. Voters just don’t think things will change. 

It’s part of the reason (other than cheating, of course) Zimbabwean voters keep voting for Zanu-PF even though the party has transparently destroyed the country. In a way, it’s the same in SA; in a one-party dominant state, people tend to believe momentum lies inexorably with the ruling party. 

The second reason for high voter disaffection in SA is that ANC supporters are losing their enthusiasm for the party but not transferring it to other parties. The reason for that, not to put too fine a point on it, is that the DA is too untransformed and the EFF is too bonkers. 

That voters are struggling to find a party to support is pretty incredible, given that more than 200 parties are expected to take part in the election. In one sense, this massive increase is an indication that many people sense voters want an alternative. There are likely to be more viable and interesting choices for voters this time. But, according to recent polls, none of them is making major inroads, except in KZN, which is why the ANC is putting so much effort into trying to get former president Jacob Zuma’s MK party out of the election. 

The most recent survey commissioned by one of the new parties, Change Starts Now, found that Build One South Africa, led by the DA’s former leader Mmusi Maimane, had about 1% support in the Western Cape, while the Patriotic Alliance had about 2%. But the shocker in this survey was KZN, where both the “other” and the “refused to say” columns were double that of anywhere else in the country. The survey was taken before the MK party officially came onto the scene, but presumably, the party’s opportunities there are huge.  

This suggests South Africans are somewhere in the vicinity of confused, irritated, angry, disillusioned or completely checked out when it comes to politics. We all instinctively know why: there is the pervasive atmosphere of a failed state. The ongoing power outages are part of this, but they are just a manifestation of a greater malaise.

Then the political class, the very people who have the most to gain from setting this right, seem too set in their ways to imagine a different future. The subtext of the ANC’s manifesto could easily have been, “We are going to carry on doing exactly what we have been doing.”  

I don’t want to seem overly negative here; in many ways the country is holding up against all odds. But honestly, if anyone tells me, SA is a “resilient country” again, I’m going to bury my head in my hands. Nobody wants SA to be a resilient country; we want to be a successful country. 

What’s to be done? I have one proposal — an idea that is gaining currency around the world: citizens’ assemblies. A citizens’ assembly is a large, representative group of people, selected randomly, who gather to hash out a problem. They are typically guided by experts, and normally, they are asked to look deeply, debate and offer solutions to particularly difficult political or social problems. In some cases, they can suggest a referendum, but generally, they just put out a report.

The selection process (in fact the entire idea) is guided by ancient democratic practice. Most democracies around the world have used the process called sortition which was contrived in ancient Athens. Sortition is the selection of public officials, or jurors, using a random representative sample. So you select a number, say about 30,000, and from those, you decrease the number by selecting for diversity and representativeness or whatever you want, and end up with a group of say 300 people. 

The idea is that you remove three blights of modern democracy: factionalism or the hostility to developing common ground; the bias against deliberative, considered, data-centric decision-making; and the removal of the temptation to pander to notional popular sentiments.

The idea has gained traction in many countries over the past decade. One of the most interesting recent examples was in Ireland. It’s particularly useful when the problems are very difficult and the Irish example covered issues as complicated as constitutional reform. In France, there is a compelling citizens’ assembly taking place at the moment on the subject of assisted dying.

A citizens’ assembly can be particularly useful in electoral reform, where there are issues in which existing political parties collectively have a common interest. SA is a good example here, as demonstrated by the manipulation of the electoral system by all of SA’s political parties to limit the role that can be played by independents. You think they can’t work together, and then they come up with a system which spikes the possibility that independents might get elected.  

It’s fascinating that the Labour Party in the UK is said to be drawing up plans to introduce citizens’ assemblies inspired by those in the Republic of Ireland should it enter government. If it does, this will constitute a hefty endorsement of the concept. 

It wouldn’t solve all of SA’s problems, obviously. But SA’s political space is becoming dangerously shrieky and muffled at the same time. We need a bit of that “sufficient consensus” style of politics that was so useful and influential during the transition period. We need citizens’ assemblies. DM

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  • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

    The main reason people are discouraged from registering is the different parties are conservative in their approach to protect personal interests.
    The DA is silent on land and inequalities created by previous selective privileges.
    The ANC is consumed by factional interests forcing them to tolerate questionable individuals for conference gains.
    The EFF has got everything right but will be frustrated by the constitution if they resort to forcefully correct the situation without a buy in by land title holders, also the huge amount of capital for projects to uplift the poor is an uphill as investors are plugged by the wars simmering in every corner.
    The rest of the parties have gained seats in parliament but their story is lying some where inside their pocket books.
    Systems that work in the UK or Ireland might have a challenge in a country that is insanely diverse like south Africa.
    When you have such diversity even in literacy levels it becomes a mountain to climb.
    Yes we need grants so people don’t go to bed hungry but the fact is it’s a freebie that is irresistible, humans by nature always perform miracles under pressure, a lot of grant recipients would have produced profitable innovations is it was that or hunger.
    Those people will always register to vote because their lives depend on the hand that feeds them.
    We still have a very long way to go until we learn that trade relations with countries who send cheap chicken rejects is killing a business that poor people can do.

  • Bryan Shepstone says:

    I couldn’t agree more! In fact I think that being a professional politician should probably disqualify a person for being in government of that were possible!

  • JC Coetzee says:

    The Overstrand Municipality is run on Citizen Assembly lines. And it is one of the best in the country. Real life prove that this concept is feasible.

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