Unresponsive Governance and the Voter-Turnout Stew

2024 weekly election brief6 eisa1 transparent democratic governance in africa

South Africa is definitively, an electoral democracy. The 2024 elections will be South Africa’s 7th National election since the 1990 transition. Its 5th set of democratic municipal elections was held in 2021. South Africa is also robust in the practices of democracy as a set of social norms – essential liberties are widely used, fundamental freedoms are intact, socio-economic rights have been extended, and there is plenty of space for free political organisation and contestation, to give vent to political voice and exercise political choice. Elections are free, fair, inclusive and relatively well managed. Even on the basis of Samuel Huntington’s limited “two turnover test” which posits that a democracy is consolidated when power has peacefully transitioned between different political parties at least twice, South Africa would be considered a consolidated democracy, considering that power has twice alternated between parties – albeit only at local or municipal level – first in 2016 in three metropolitan municipalities and then in 2021 in 7, in which the ANC lost control and which it only managed to claw back thanks to back room inducements and deals with other parties. Provincially the ANC lost the Western Cape region to the Democratic Alliance (DA) in 2009 and regained control of the KwaZulu Natal only in 2009, which it originally lost in 1994. While this might highlight a certain robustness in competition, these examples of local and regional level alternations in power mask the broader challenges facing the entrenchment of democratic government.

The Problem of Democratic Governance
While South Africa does not have a democracy problem, it certainly has a democratic governance one. South Africa has a political problem. Its political problems lead to problems in democratic governance. South Africa appears to have normalised politics in the form of abnormal competition for power at any cost, which could potentially lead to combustive and conflictual political situations. This means there are constant shifts in alliances between leaders and parties, evidencing rootless politics that are unhinged to principle, or fidelity to values. This obviously leads to a crisis of representation and responsiveness, accompanied by an ideas vacuum. This enables the party system to tend towards fragmentation, fracture and factionalism which have emerged. At least five parties have been constituted from ANC breakaway groups, and around four from the DA. The majority formed after either disciplinary processes, suspension or expulsion from the main party, or even the risk of it, and few of the splinter parties can provide discernible differentiating features from the party they broke-away from.

2024 weekly election brief6 eisa2 transparent democratic governance in africa

The legitimacy of political parties, and democratic institutions, generally are not questionable, but their credibility is. Political parties, once seen as the socialising aggregator in the vanguard of articulating societal interests, appear fragmented, factionalised, and disconnected from their base. Seemingly more interested in parochial concerns, being internally fixated they appear obsessed with proximity to power for patronage rather than addressing societal need. This has led to a widespread crisis of representation and responsiveness, where public institutions are perceived as insulated and unaccountable, evidenced by eroding levels of trust in political institutions over the past two decades as shown by the Afrobarometer survey and the Institute for Justice and Reconciliations Barometer. Political parties as the principal institutional organisers of politics and public deliberation fare even worse. In 2006, trust in the governing ANC stood at 62%, but by recent measures, it has plummeted to 27%. Opposition parties fare little better, with trust declining from 29% to 24%. 

The Electoral System, Representation and Responsiveness                                                                         South Africa’s electoral system, designed in the early post-apartheid era employs a closed list, pure proportional representation (PR) system to ensure inclusivity and diversity in a society scarred by separation and segregation. While this system has brought diverse voices into the political arena, it has also fostered fragmentation (currently 10% of the electorate are represented by 11 different political parties, while the amongst the top three – the EFF represents about 10%, the DA, 21% and the remaining 57%, represented by the ANC). This fragmentation has also led to a proliferation of parties (52 will contest the 2024 elections alongside 11 independent candidates). The very mechanism intended to democratise representation appears to find itself accused of diluting it. The nature of the electoral campaigns appears to have suggested that the election is all about the parties and their concerns, relegating the concerns of voters to the periphery.

Even on the basis of Samuel Huntington’s limited “two turnover test” which posits that a democracy is consolidated when power has peacefully transitioned between different political parties at least twice, South Africa would be considered a consolidated democracy, considering that power has twice alternated between parties - albeit only at local or municipal level

Critical concerns for South Africans in the run-up to the 2024 general elections
The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), in partnership with Afrobarometer, recently conducted a pre-election survey amongst a nationally representative sample of 1800 South Africans in anticipation of the country’s 29 May 2024 general election. This is survey is part of broader panel study that will see the survey being replicated amongst the same respondents in the wake of the elections. The purpose of the first survey, which was conducted between the 23rd of April and the 11th of May, was to gauge voter interest in the elections, possible voter turnout, and the key policy issues that concern voters in the run-up to the poll.

In terms of the latter question, respondents were asked to indicate the three most important problems that a new government should address after the May 2024 elections. The top three results were hardly surprising. Overall, 71% of respondents selected unemployment as the most pivotal issue, close to a quarter (26%) highlighted energy supply, and just over a fifth (21%) pointed to the scourge of corruption in the public sector. Amongst the remaining issues in the top ten list of concerns, human security represented a common theme, crime, the cost of living, housing, and the management of the economy featuring prominently. Another item that has not appeared in the top 10 list of concerns in previous surveys is the question of access to a clean water supply – service delivery matter that has become increasingly acute alongside concerns about a steady energy supply.

Figure 1: Most important challenges facing South Africans
2024 weekly election brief6 eisa transparent democratic governance in africa
Source: Afrobarometer, 2024

Whether the gravity of these concerns will result in a higher voter turnout than in previous elections remains to be seen. Around 62% have indicated that they are unsatisfied with the way in which democracy has functioned in addressing these key concerns, with close to half of respondents (47%) indicating that they do not feel close any political party that will compete in the 2024 elections. Even amongst those who were registered and likely to vote, a third of respondents indicated that they do not know yet which party they would vote for. This disillusionment with the functioning of the political system may serve as a deterrent from voting. At the same time, the extent to which these concerns are taking their toll on South Africans may become a catalyst for a higher turnout.

Voter Turnout and Its Impact
It is unsurprising then that voter turnout has been steadily declining. This is due neither to apathy nor disinterest but is directly a function of discontent and the declining trust in representative institutions of public deliberation. There is a widespread perception that that democratic institutions have been tamed to serve the interests of parties, not people. The growing disillusionment with the political system has seen voter participation drop from 89.3% in 1999, to 65.34% in 2019. This steady decline continued in local elections when in 2016 it was at 58% dropping to 46% in 2021. Projections for 2024 indicate a potential turnout of 53% to 63%, depending on public sentiment and voters desire to reward or punish. Lower turnout levels can lead to uneven representation and undermine the legitimacy of elected officials, making it harder for any party to claim a strong mandate.

Democracy, development and Democratic Government
South Africa’s democratic practices reveal a complex interplay of achievement, and failure. While electoral democracy appears entrenched, with a few successful transitions of power between political parties in leading government, the underlying issues of poor oversight, impunity, and informality in decision making means that challenges in democratic governance remain palpable. The normalisation of politics as solely the pursuit of power at any cost, has fostered a climate of fragmentation, factionalism, and disillusionment among the electorate – but a great proliferation of aspirant political parties. The electoral system, originally designed to promote inclusivity, representativity and diversity, now faces criticism for potentially diluting representation through party proliferation. Most concerning is the steady decline in voter turnout, symptomatic of a populous increasingly disenchanted with the responsiveness and accountability of elected officials.

Without meaningful reform, regulatory intervention and attitudinal change amongst political party leaders and members, enhancing representation, responsiveness, and public trust will remain elusive leading to a tendency to retreat from democratic participation which further disincentivises political, social and economic representation, and, consequently, opportunities for social mobility and advancement through effective government performance.

2024 weekly election briefs eisa 1 transparent democratic governance in africa

The South African Elections Weekly Briefs are produced through a partnership between The Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa, Media Monitoring Africa and the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. The purpose of the partnership interventions is to strengthen peaceful and inclusive participatory electoral processes in South Africa.