With exactly 200 parties registered with the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), one would think South African voters were spoilt for choice. There are parties devoted to specific causes, such as the Abolition of Income Tax and Usury Party and the Black Economic Empowerment Party, or parties aimed at particular constituencies – the Prisoners’ Political Party and the Security Workers Political Party. There are no less than nine parties with “Christian” and one with “God” in their name; 12 with “civic”, and several more with “residents”, “ratepayers” or “community forum”. Looking at the IEC website, one is left with the impression that forming a political party in South Africa is a bit like self-publishing on Amazon.
Out of the 200 registered parties though, only 29 will appear on the national ballot having cleared all the administrative hurdles, made the necessary deposits, and submitted their candidate lists on time. Just 13 of these are contesting in all provinces in South Africa’s simultaneously held provincial elections on 7 May.
An embarrassment of riches or just embarassing?
A vibrant democracy one might think. Yet millions of South Africans are at a loss, disillusioned, apathetic or undecided. Instead of an embarrassment of riches, many see the plethora of political parties as merely an embarrassment. To this, must now be added recent revelations of corruption at the highest level of the Independent Electoral Commission itself.
There are 25 million people on the voters’ roll, as a percentage of eligible voters, 4% below the last general election. About six million eligible voters have not registered.
An Ipsos poll (considered one of the more reliable polls) in January, found 7% of voters will not vote, another 6% declined to answer, and 5% were undecided. Voter turnout in the last general election was 77%, a figure below voter turnout in even many moribund European democracies, continuing a marked decline from the 87% turnout achieved in 1999.
Taken together, potential voters unregistered and registered voters who probably won’t vote, 12 million South African citizens have chosen not to participate in the election. Set this against the 19 million expected to cast votes, and one sees the problem.
What is going wrong?
The people are leaving the parties behind
Part of the problem is that main political parties are losing their appeal; they are stuck in the old apartheid paradigm, whereas the people are trying to move on.
In the absence of achievement, the ANC falls back on revisiting its glory days of struggle history (with the tragic irony that after the Marikana massacre, its highly privileged leadership and capitalist cronies increasingly resemble the elite of the ancien régime).
Yet 50% of registered voters are under 40 and were only of school age during apartheid. By the next general election, roughly four million more will be added to that number (those currently aged between 13 and 17). According to one estimate (by Schulz-Herzenberg) the number of potential voters aged 18 and above who chose not to vote increased from 14% in 1994 to 40% in 2009.
The ANC is so out of touch with the youth that even its own once virile Youth League has evaporated. Of the 2.3 million new voters registered for this election, a quarter of a million of them were born after 1994, South Africa’s first democratic election.
Meanwhile, the next biggest party, the official opposition, is so laden with apartheid baggage from under which it is struggling to emerge, that even it went fishing in struggle history to seek legitimacy with its “know you DA” campaign in the risible hope of positioning itself as part of the struggle.
The DA has no prospect of forming a government until it metamorphoses into a new party with a new name. Helen Zille, its leader, clearly knows this. Hence, her almost kamikaze attempts to merge with Mamphela Ramphele’s Agang.
Also telling, is that shortly before every general election, a new party is formed as a hopeful forward-looking, democratic alternative to break the apartheid stalemate of the ANC/DA – in 1999, it was the UDM; in 2004, the Independent Democrats; in 2009, Cope, and now in 2014, Agang. Not one has found traction; not because there isn’t a need among voters, but because their party machinery is dysfunctional and their leaders have been egocentric and taken disastrous unilateral decisions.
Now in the run-up to 7 May, a campaign has been launched to spoil ballots or to vote for any opposition party other than the official opposition party.
Called Sidikiwe! (isiXhosa for ‘We are Fed Up!) Vukani (isiXhosa and isiZulu for ‘Arise’ – in the plural) VOTE NO!, one of its proponents is Ronnie Kasrils, armed struggle veteran and former intelligence minister, who wrote in an email, “many of us who have been part of the struggle and the building of our new democracy, felt increasingly uncomfortable about giving our vote to the ANC, whilst feeling there was no viable alternative … reflecting the alienation of many, in particular ANC supporters.”
“Corruption, cronyism, control over the public debate have spread like a cancer through the ANC… with the result that millions of people now consider themselves ‘outsiders’, facing poverty, lack of jobs and poor education.”
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Although the ANC will probably do well in the elections, it is undoubtedly facing a growing test to its legitimacy. Constant civil protests are teaching people that violence and burning barricades are more effective than going to ballot boxes. Voter apathy or disillusionment when combined with economic disenfranchisement among millions is a lethal threat to democracy. Predictions of a South African version of the Tahrir Square protests, which two years ago seemed far-fetched, suddenly don’t feel so improbable.
What is to be done?
South Africa should be doing better, because it has done better in the past with higher registration and higher turnouts.
Electoral reform is urgently needed to reinvigorate South Africa’s democracy. The party list system of proportional representation needs to give way to more constituency-based seats. Party funding has to be regulated and transparent.
Finally, I would make two further proposals. Voting should be made “compulsory” (even though it is not implementable), but in return voters should all be given a free national lottery ticket and a chance to win millions, and the ballot paper must then in fairness have the option on it: “I vote for none of the above”.