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Voting in 2021: An emasculated, compromised action


Susan Booysen is Director of Research, Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA), and visiting and emeritus professor, Wits School of Governance.

Never before in democratic South Africa’s elections has there been such a barrage of assaults on the meaning of the vote. Voting with any sense of hope in local elections 2021 will require the electorate to extend heaps of blind trust and offer loads of suspension of disbelief.

If voters go out to vote they will run the risk of being “rewarded” with frustration about politicians’ hollow words, reminders that “Mandela’s democracy” is long buried, and rude awakenings to the fact that the governing party is no longer the trusted parent who brings the food home at night. These were common articulations of South Africa’s past world of democracy experiences. Times have changed.

The negative experiences of voting raise questions about both the likely turnout rates for the elections of 1 November, and the legitimacy of the elections should there be very low participation. A lessened belief in the virtues of voting may also contribute to post-election political and governance instability – even more so if in the context of coalition local governments.

While waiting for 1 November, South Africa’s citizens and voters are wading through a maze of trading off the merits of voting, protesting as a substitute for voting, or giving up on caring about voting in elections. More than 40% of the electorate in previous local elections had already abstained. The levels of cynicism about electoral participation appear to be growing. These trends are indicated in street-level comments on the value of the vote this time around and recent polling data that confirm that South Africans have grown by massive leaps in their willingness to forfeit elections for an abstractly formulated “governance option that can guarantee better delivery”. Elected representatives, also at the local level, are simply no longer the celebrated bearers of trusted, good government.

Street-level sentiments circa 2021 question the politicians, similar to sentiments expressed in multiple preceding South African elections. The outcries have been ignored, for the best part of the last decade and probably longer. The narrative of election campaigns as the time of empty promises by opportunistic, possibly dishonest, self-centred politicians is omnipresent nowadays. Practical service delivery experiences, combined with councillors’ vanishing acts post-election sustain the words.

The context within which the campaigns unfold has also changed. Politicians’ claims that work on delivery is under way, but will just take a while longer to show more tangible results, nowadays hold little water. More severely, far fewer South Africans are persuaded that President Cyril Ramaphosa is the valiant ANC and state warrior whose fight to eliminate corruption is about to unleash a thousand blossoms. Afrobarometer in its recent survey found that around two-thirds of South Africa’s people have essentially given up hope that the Ramaphosa promises of new dawns, corruption busting and justice being served have gravitas. They also do not believe that the country is heading in the right direction. Many have given up on getting the system, including voting, to work for them. Voting appears as a frivolous afterthought to bulls fighting in the smoke-filled rooms of party politics.

Beyond these enclaves, party politics has lost much of its gloss and enticement. After 11 elections (national-provincial and local) South Africa’s 2021 voters convey a sense that they have seen it all. Political parties for now seem to be powerless to reverse the trend. Slogans and posters, to the extent that these have become available six weeks before the elections, appear unconvincing and out of touch.

In preparation for previous elections, voter registration had jumped by around a million voters across voter registration weekends. Could that be sustained in the Electoral Commission’s forthcoming voter registration weekend, also affected by Covid-19 pandemic conditions? The outcomes of the weekend’s registering will indicate preliminarily whether voter turnout is likely to plummet or not. The legitimacy of the 2021 elections will be affected by whether the 57.9% and 57.6% turnout of local elections 2016 and 2011, respectively, can be maintained. Alternatively, will turnout levels return to (or even fall below) the 48.07% of 2000 or the 48.40% of 2006?

The threat of non-participation and budding illegitimacy of elections due to the ANC candidates in 95 municipalities not being fully nominated and followers boycotting the polls as a result has been averted. Yet, the ANC’s internal party problems continue to pose challenges to either the veracity of the forthcoming elections generally, or for the ANC in particular. Internal leadership and policy problems, across the ANC and old and new opposition parties, may become national problems if they continue to affect the value that voters attach to their electoral decisions.

Regarding the ANC, still dominant in many respects, it is only a severely handicapped electorate that would not have questions about the authenticity of a party that cannot efficiently manage its own candidate nominations, and struggles to bring out an unambiguous message to the electorate. Equally, it is a troubled party that invokes the option of forced candidate resignations and by-elections… a step that ANC spokesperson Pule Mabe promised as a solution to the party’s inability to resolve its candidate nomination wars before the Electoral Commission’s deadline closes in.

The implications of this “solution” appear not to have dawned on the ANC: it will in essence be asking the electorate to endorse a party that is inherently unstable, at war with itself, unable to manage itself. Voters will be asked to vote in an election, only for that election in specific wards to be undone again.

This spectre deepens if it is taken into account that intraparty stability is one of the prerequisites for political parties to contribute to stable governing coalitions – while ANC decline may catapult the former behemoth into more coalition governments than before, following the local elections. Successful coalitions require internal stability beyond the levels that the ANC is displaying currently. In its current state, even if it gathers more votes than any opposition party, the ANC will be an unstable coalition partner of note. 

A vote in the forthcoming elections may emerge as an emasculated, compromised action, a far cry from a ballot tick that once contributed to liberation. DM


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All Comments 10

  • All true. Neither the ANC nor the two or three next largest parties give any sense of caring about the electorate except as voting fodder. A hopeful sign is the emergence of community level independent candidates who seem to have no motive other than getting things done (and fixed). Perhaps we should all commit ourselves to helping this grow into a real popular movement. Despair is an option – but not something that gets one out of bed each day.

    • Agreed, we need to be able to vote for people that are interested in improving the communities that they represent rather than the self interest that we invariably get.

  • The DA has lost my vote. As has everyone else for that matter. I will not be seen to support “the least worst” because the “least worst” is so appalling giving it my support is tantamount to treason. So here’s the deal. I’ll freely exchange my vote in lieu of taxes to be paid. Keep your vote. I’ll keep my taxes and take my chances with whatever muppet it is that gets elected. Seems fair to me.

    • To equate the DA, who govern much, much better in the municipalities that they run, with the ANC is a blunder.

      The ANC is taking South Africa to the cleaners. We are the worst in the world on key metrics ( like unemployment, child literacy and maths) and sliding down every other league table.

      Time to vote them out.

      • Make these key performance indicators available in all media (formal & social & interpersonal)over say the past 3 election periods. Voters are confused & numbed by never ending reports of corruption & subsequent political spin. Provider them with verified understandable trends to make a decision on and to keep politicians accountable

  • Not sure of the point of this column except to demotivate the already demotivated from voting, as evidence by the first to comments. Even though it’s a lose-lose choice we can still choose which looser to back. That is a right worth having and using. Surely?

  • Perhaps coalitions are more necessary now than ever, and may not lead to instability but rather to greater cooperation between parties. There is already much political polarisation. Coalitions may not be a bad idea at all. It will certainly temper some of the more extreme positions at local government level.

  • Ja, it’s grim out there, and the choices on the menu are even grimmer, but I’m voting. If you don’t vote, no one should listen to your moaning about bad service, corruption, or how utterly useless the ANC is.

  • In my mind the ANC vovernmentis now called the RIP (Rogue Impostor Politicians). Why?
    1. Many of their members in Government elite steal our tax money to enrich themselves – simply criminals.
    2. These criminals are tolerated in the RIP – silence is acceptance/approval.
    3. These rogues reprezent a gang, not a government representative of society’s values and norms.
    4. To survive in this hostile environment we need a representative non-“political” (sic) body to ensure our taxes are only used for projects that will benefit us as the South African society.
    The rhetoric is wasted, the time for good old common sense is upon us.

    When we stand together we win, remember the toll gates between Pretoria and Johannesburg?

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