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In 20 years, the population which has chosen not to vote has increased by 9.4 million. What does this largely hidden tale tell us about South Africa’s political system and its democracy?

No sooner had the final results of the recently concluded 2014 national elections been announced than President Zuma gave a predictably self-congratulatory speech lauding the result as “the will of all the people”. The reality however is that the ANC’s victory came from a distinct minority of “the people”. The real ‘winner’, as has been the case since the 2004 elections, was the stay away ‘vote’.

Since South Africa’s first-ever democratic elections in 1994, the hard facts are that there has been a directly proportionate relationship between the overall decline in support for the ANC and the rise of the stay away ‘vote’. A quick look at the relevant percentages/numbers from each election confirms the reality.

1994: Of the 23 063 910 eligible voters, 85,53 percent (19 726 610) voted while the remaining 14,47 percent (3 337 300) stayed away. The ANC received support from 53,01 percent (12 237 655) of the eligible voting population.

1999: Of the 25 411 573 eligible voters, 62,87 percent (15 977 142) voted while the remaining 37,13 percent (9 434 431) stayed away. The ANC received support from 41,72 percent (10 601 330) of the eligible voting population.

2004: Of the 27 994 712 eligible voters, 55,77 percent (15 612 671) voted while the remaining 44,23 percent (12 382 041) stayed away. The ANC received support from 38,87 percent (10 880 917) of the eligible voting population.

2009: Of the 30 224 145 eligible voters, 59,29 percent (17 919 966) voted while the remaining 40,71 percent (12 304 179) stayed away. The ANC received support from 38,55 percent (11 650 748) of the eligible voting population.

2014: Of the 31 434 035 eligible voters, 59,34 percent (18 654 457) voted while the remaining 40,66 percent (12 779 578) stayed away. The ANC received support from 36,39 percent (11 436 921) of the eligible voting population.

It is quite an amazing ‘storyline’ with two key tropes. At the same time that South Africa’s eligible voting population - based on estimates of successive census’s - has increased by 8,4 million in twenty years of democracy, the amount of that population which has chosen not to vote has increased by 9,4 million. Simultaneously, electoral support for the ANC, as a percentage of that voting population, has declined precipitously from 53 to 36 percent.

One of the main reasons why this ‘story’ is most often buried in the margins of our political and electoral conversations and consciousness is that the official version conveniently ignores primarily those citizens (a majority of whom are young people between the ages of 18-20) who have not registered to vote and secondarily, those who have registered but chosen not to vote. It is similar to the politically-inspired and artificially constructed distinction between the ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ unemployment rate which has the effect of erasing millions from the officially recognised ranks of the unemployed.

As a result, the official version of these latest national elections (in many cases, mirrored by the media) is one in which there is a “high voter turnout” and where the ANC victory is presented as indicative of support from the “majority of voters”. And so it is that the almost 13 million who decided not to participate in the 2014 elections (whether registered or not) are effectively airbrushed from the picture, while the 11,5 million who voted for the ANC become “the people”. Stalin would be smiling approvingly.

What does this largely hidden tale tell us about the state of South Africa’s political system and more broadly, of our democracy? Firstly, that a growing portion of the adult (voting age) population, but concentrated amongst the youth, has become alienated from the political system. In societies like South Africa which are framed by a liberal capitalist socio-political order, the mere existence and functioning of representative democratic institutions and processes increasingly mask the decline of meaningful popular democratic participation and control. This, in a context where elections have become the political playground of those with access to capitalist patronage and where electoral choice is largely reduced to different shades of grey.

Since the act of voting in such national elections is itself representative of either a belief in/acceptance of, the existing order or that meaningful change can result from such an act, the counter-act of not voting can be seen as representative of the opposites. In other words, there is no necessary or inherent connection between voting and the deepening of democracy in ways that can make a systemic difference in the lives of those who feel/ experience exclusion and marginalisation.

This speaks to a reality which those on the ‘other side of the fence’ appear wholly unwilling to face; that for some time now, almost half of South Africans able to vote clearly do not see voting as being in their social, material and political interests. Apathy is simply a convenient and patronising ‘explanation’. It also speaks to the refusal to recognise that the (pre) conditions for meaningful and popular participation in any representational act or process are embedded in changing the structural relations of power, whether grounded in social, economic, political, gender or knowledge relations.

Indeed, the developmental legacy of post-1994 South Africa has been, and continues to be, characterised by the false twinning of a democratic form to the needs of a capitalist ‘market’. This has resulted in a creeping intolerance – fuelled predominately by those in positions of political and economic power and policed by the coercive capacity of the state - of legitimate political/social dissent, which is the lifeblood of any genuine democracy. It has also produced a situation wherein institutionalised practices and forms of representative democracy such as elections – while largely accepted as a legitimate form of democratic expression - make little practical difference in the lives of so many since the key societal (developmental) decisions are taken by those that participate in, and manage, that ‘market’.

In his post-election speech President Zuma stated that the ANC’s electoral victory represents an “overwhelming mandate from our people … and reaffirms that the ANC remains the only true hope for the majority of our people”. Clearly, he and his organisation have not read the whole story.

* Dr. McKinley is an independent writer, researcher and lecturer as well as political activist. This article was published by">SACSIS



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