It is cause for serious concern when only 17.4 million people out of 36 million eligible voters turned up at the polls in the 2019 national elections. The actual turnout stands at 48% when counting all eligible voters, including those who did not register.
About 10 million people did not bother to register, and of the 26 million who registered, nine million did not bother to show up at the polls. Which means 19 million citizens did not participate in the elections, a significantly larger number than the 17 million who voted.
Voter non-participation is of course not a recent phenomenon. The number of people who register to vote has been on the decline since 1999, with 2019 showing the lowest number of voters registered. For the youth aged 18-19, there was a 47% decline in registration.
Furthermore, 235,472 voters spoiled their vote, although we cannot be sure whether this was out of protest or just errors in filling out the ballot paper.
What cannot be overlooked, however, is the remarkable level of apathy displayed by the citizenry regarding the elections, shown through the number of non-voters.
Even prior to 8 May 2019, a large part of the discussions around the elections was accompanied by the melancholy resignation of not knowing who to actually vote for.
There are those who called for voting for a lesser devil who would cause the least damage to the country. But whatever damage made, as little as it might be, it will not be felt by them, but by the poor, the unemployed and those dissatisfied with the lack of return for their civic participation.
What the 17 million who have voted have done is to prolong the eventual demise of a system that is not working for a majority of South Africans, especially the young. Five years from now we will still be in the same situation, where political parties have reduced the electorate even further by their complete disregard for those they govern.
What non-voters have done is bring attention to their dissatisfaction with political parties who use elections to legitimise their hold on power while robbing communities of service delivery.
There has been a plethora of op-eds and discussions on how the low voter turnout shows a growing number of citizens unhappy, not with democracy, but with how political parties have abused the electoral system for their own self-interest.
Voter apathy has been attributed, not to a lack of interest in political participation, but to failing political parties — their corrupt ways, lack of service delivery and disregard for the rights of poor communities until the next election cycle.
And just like anything in South Africa, despite mounting red flags, an unsatisfactory electoral system is pushed to its limit until the wheels fall off and the people who suffer at the blunt end eventually rise up to protest in blind anger, calling for the total overhaul of that system, whereas simple genuine reforms would have made significant differences to begin with.
Democracy must go beyond elections. But it is only during elections that political parties are willing to listen. And they will do anything for the vote. Withholding that vote has become the only way citizens can protest against the way parties treat them.
What is a democracy anyway if we are forced to choose unsatisfactory options that we all know are not working?
By withholding their votes, non-voters in their numbers have shown political parties that there is something inherently wrong with the system and that they will not participate in legitimising corruption and neglect.
And yes, regardless of how many people vote, a government will still be constituted with fewer votes and numbers, albeit still enough required for a parliamentary seat. But there will also be a cloud hanging over the heads of the parties that did not receive approval from the majority of the population.
Any political party worth its salt ought to be concerned that more people are refusing to vote. They should see this as an opportunity to capitalise on this growing constituency that exists outside of the liberation party, which is willing to be courted by those who will present to them the right vision of an equal and just South Africa.
We cannot continue with the status quo. It is time that the country reflects on whether voting and the electoral system that we admire still means the same thing that it did in 1994.
Eventually the poor and neglected will get tired of the constantly failed promises. And at that time they will demand we change the entire system of democracy because it has not brought any changes to their lives.
A new dawn is not anything different to what we have seen before when our political arena, Cabinet, government departments and the state is dictated by the factional battles of a political party, rather than the will of the people.
It is like what Sisonke Msimang, author and essayist, said to me while visiting South Africa from Australia: The mood of the country has changed, although everything is still the same. DM