Twenty-five years after South Africa’s first democratic elections, the country went to the polls to designate the 400 members of the 2019 National Assembly.

South Africa has a bicameral Parliament consisting of the National Council of Provinces with 90 seats and the National Assembly.

The motives to celebrate a quarter-century of democracy after the end of apartheid are manifold. However, the 2019 elections have also brought up some key issues and lessons for the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC), particularly regarding voter registration and participation.

1.      Low voter registration affects political participation

While the number of registered voters increased to 26.7 million for this election, the eligible voting population has increased in South Africa to 35.9 million. The registration rate in 2019 is therefore at 74.5% according to estimates from Statistics South Africa.

The Electoral Commission explained that “the overall registration level remains high by international standards for countries with a voluntary registration system.” However, the Commission is concerned that approximately 9.8 million eligible voters were not registered. 6 million of them are under 30 years old.

It is indeed a worrisome figure. Data shows that over 27% of eligible voters decided not to register for the 2019 polls. Africa Check confirmed that 1 in 4 people did not register for the election. The IEC hence needs to evaluate strategies to engage potential voters from the very first stages of the election cycle (including voting education and voter registration.)

2.      Plummeting voter turnout weakens democracy

Voter participation is decreasing in South Africa. In fact, 2019 saw the lowest rate: 65.9%, since the dawn of democracy in 1994. 17,671,616 citizens voted (out of the 26.7 million registered.) Turnout dropped over 7.5 percentage points from 73.5% in 2014.

It is true that the historic 1994 poll is considered as the most successful event in terms of voter participation in South Africa. The Economist described it as “turnout was near universal, with millions of non-white South Africans waking up before dawn to line up for their first opportunity to vote.” However, there was no official voters roll back then, so statistics for voter turnout start with the 1999 elections, in which the turnout rate was an appealing 89.3%.

Political and election experts explain there are at least three critical reasons for voter turnout decreasing in South Africa:

  • Voter apathy caused by a growing disillusionment for the country’s political leaders and their parties. com explained, “there’s voter fatigue globally, and it’s not different from South Africa’s young democracy.” While, Mpumelelo Mkhabela, an independent political analyst suggested that “the problem is voter apathy and not political apathy – in universities, you see robust and noisy politics which is usually powerful enough to effect change.”
  • “The party’s [ANC] lowest ever score of 58% was due to voters expressing their frustration. I would not choose leaders who work to fill their own pockets”. South African returning president, Mr. Cyril Ramaphosa, said.
  • “It might be ‘part and parcel of a maturing democracy.’ Leaders need new ways of appealing to voters – mainly South Africa’s young people, 6 million of whom did not register to vote.” BBC News, Johannesburg

3.      Young voters are becoming more skeptical towards elections

One of the reasons that concern the most the Independent Electoral Commission is the low participation of South African youth in the polls. Notably, after social movements showed the young voters’ continuous interest and activism in politics and social issues affecting the country.

Soaring rates of unemployment, social and economic struggles to enter and complete higher education and professional practices, and an enlarging gap between the young population’ needs and its aging leaders’ actions, sum up some of the main reasons young voters decided to stay away from this year’s elections.

“The Millennial Dialogue – a partnership between the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (Feps) and the Mapungubwe Institute of Strategic Reflection (Mistra) – investigated the attitudes of South African youth towards politics. The study found that one of the key barriers to voting identified by South African youth is inadequate electoral reform.” Analysis based on social media engagement highlighted that voter registration and the polling process itself might also have been “too complicated and inflexible to accommodate young voters.”

Finally, the global technology consumption and the high-tech advancements available in the public space have set in motion questions and doubts among young people regarding the ability of political leaders to adapt and respond. The same political party (the ANC) has been in power since Nelson Mandela was elected 25 years ago, and the younger voters of South Africa have started to feel a “pacing problem” with their representatives. It is important to note that even if its popularity dropped compared to the 2014 election, the ANC still got the majority of votes in this election.

When young voters feel that it would not make any difference to the politics of the country if they vote, it is a gigantic red flag to election authorities. It is a sign to get voting transformation in motion before the society experience a democratic plunge into a less legitimate system.

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