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Apathy is a silent majority when 43% of South Africans refuse to vote


Suntosh R Pillay is a clinical psychologist in Durban, South Africa, who writes widely on social issues.

To win the South African national elections, politicians need to target citizens who simply don’t care about voting any more.

In the gallery of our most iconic photos of our newfound democracy are pictures of those snaking queues of thousands of eager South Africans waiting to vote on 27 April 1994. I waited in line with my parents, too young to vote but old enough to appreciate that we were living through history. A simple X – with it, a tragic appreciation for the thousands who sacrificed their lives to give us the power and freedom that comes with electing our leaders. Why, then, are most South Africans likely to boycott the upcoming national election?

Crunching the numbers

Next weekend is a pivotal moment in the run-up to the election because it is the final weekend South Africans have to register to vote. If the trend continues, almost half of all potential voters will remain blissfully unregistered. After our last national general elections, the Institute for Security Studies published a report, Voter participation in the South African elections of 2014 written by Collette Schulz-Herzenberg. Of all eligible voters in 2014, 43% did not vote at all.

The percentage of winning votes published in the media always looks inflated because they are reported as the percentage of registered voters who voted for political parties, ignoring the total number of people who could have registered to vote but chose not to. When we take into account all eligible voters, the numbers are quite sobering.

The ANC – a minority party blessed by apathy

Take the African National Congress (ANC), for example. Despite the new dawn promised by Cyril Ramaphosa, 2019 will result in the ANC’s biggest electoral defeat. Crunching the numbers a few months away from our sixth presidential election, the idea of a post-ANC South Africa seems entirely plausible, rational, and surprisingly long overdue when you digest some of these facts:

  • Only 54% of eligible voters actually voted for the ANC in 1994, our first democratic election.

  • Only 35% of eligible voters actually voted for the ANC in 2014, a mere 20 years later.

So when the ANC tells us that they won 62.15% of the vote in 2014, that two-thirds of South Africans want them to govern, that is only partly true. That’s based on registered voters.

Looking back, those 1994 stats are bleak. At its peak, when the ANC still had every ounce of moral authority it deserved as a titan anti-apartheid liberation movement; and with Nelson Mandela, its most mythologised figure as the face of its election campaign; and with a fresh, clean slate to transition into a governing party, the ANC only managed to convince half the country to put it into power (14% of people did not even vote at all in the historic 1994 election, but that’s another story).

The situation got bleaker in 2014. While 86% of eligible voters turned out to vote in 1994, only 57% of eligible voters did so in 2014. The catastrophic effect of Jacob Zuma’s first term as president resulted in 43% of South Africans not voting in the last election – which means, hypothetically, if they all came together as a united voting bloc, the entire 2014 election could have been swung – because the ANC only managed to convince 35% of eligible voters in South Africa to vote for them. (Soak that in for a moment – there are so many South African adults who don’t participate in the elections that if they all joined forces and formed a party, they would win the elections… at a greater percentage than the ANC currently enjoys.)

So let’s keep reminding ourselves – as a myth-busting prerogative –that most South Africans simply do not care enough about the elections or about the ANC or DA or any other party. As a result, a minority party enjoys a relative majority on the voter apathy ticket. Perhaps this is why the ANC has never been able to properly transition from a liberation movement into a functional governing party – deep down lies the nagging truth that it has a pathetic majority in terms of its electoral mandate. Non-voters, unfortunately, express their dissatisfaction with the status quo in a politically meaningless manner – because not voting does not reduce the chances of a governing party winning – only voting for an alternative does (and herein lies the rub – are there any worthy alternatives at all?).

Sadly, this is a global phenomenon. Even Donald Trump’s win was only due to 26% of eligible American voters and was also attributed in part to voter apathy. Back in 2012, the British were swept by incredible apathy when asked to vote for the first time for the major posts of police and crime commissioners – only 14% turned up, described as “the worst in British political history for a nationwide poll”. As for Brexit, well, the less said the better.

Some argue for the right not to vote but this is more an indicator of the breakdown of trust between Parliament and its people. And if history proves that elections are more about emotions than policies, then Parliament and political parties must do more to rebuild the social pact between them and us, or risk apathy normalising itself as the silent majority. Reflecting on these numbers can remind us that in this morass of corruption and mistrust of our captured state, the future is not as bleak and we are not as helpless as it seems.

A new dawn is possible if only the apathetic come out to see the sunshine. DM


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