South Africa’s crisis of representation

South Africa has had formal democracy for 30 years, but more of its citizens are tuned out of the democratic process.

Jubilant crowds listening to the speech of President Nelson Mandela on May 10, 1994. Credit Sattleberger for UN Photo via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

South Africa marked 30 years of democracy on April 27, 2023—a historic day in 1994 when the first nonracial elections took place. This moment was a culmination of years of struggle against the apartheid regime. The milestone was ushered in by seemingly endless negotiations, the unbanning of liberation movements, the release of political prisoners, the return of cadres from exile, and the reversal of apartheid laws that led to the introduction of a new interim constitution. In a speech at Ohlange High School in Inanda, Kwa-Zulu Natal (founded by John and Nokuthula Dube, the first president of the ANC and his wife, the author of the first Zulu songbook), Nelson Mandela said after casting his vote: “We are starting a new era of hope, reconciliation and nation building. We sincerely hope that by the mere casting of a vote the results will give hope to all South Africans.”

“One person, one vote” is one of the significant victories against apartheid. It is a basis of self-determination for the majority of black people who lived under white minority rule in the past. What does it mean to vote today? How can we commemorate Freedom Day as South Africa prepares for a general election in 2024?

In 1994 South Africa had 22.7 million eligible voters, 19.7 million voted in the 1994 national election. The voter turnout was 86.9%, the largest turnout in our nearly 30-year-old democratic dispensation. Despite the fact that the elections themselves had challenges—including threats of violence, accusations of cheating, technical difficulties at the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC), and negotiated political compromises that saw the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) claiming KwaZulu-Natal and the 20% share to the National Party that won them the deputy president position—all things considered, a resounding political victory and progress for many South Africans was achieved.

It is important to note that there were only 19 parties on the ballot in 1994. Nearly 30 years later we have more than 50 political parties registered on the national ballot and more than 400 on provincial and local ballots.

Throughout our years of democracy, we have seen a drastic drop in voter participation. From the 1999 election to the 2019 poll, the number of people eligible to vote increased to 35.8 million, yet fewer of those eligible voters participate in elections and many do not even see the need to register to vote. In 2019, the turnout for voter registration was 65.9%, a 21% drop from 1994. The highest political participation through voting and participating in elections seen in 1994 has evaporated into thin air.

While 65.9% of eligible voters registered, only 49% of eligible voters actually went out to vote. Lower voter turnout is sometimes used as an indicator of the health of democracy. With an expected further dip in voter turnout in 2024, one questions the validity of South African democracy and whether those in power have legitimacy. What is more concerning is that the majority (almost 60%) of those who chose not to vote are under the age of 35. The youth, it appears, have already abandoned voting.

Why is the growth of political parties not paralleled by growth in voter participation? Perhaps the dominant obsession with the state as the “only” way to resolve the problems facing South Africa is at play; or the need to build a strong civil society that fully participates in civic, community, and political affairs has been discarded. The slogan “The people shall govern” has been turned to “We need more leaders.” This has opened the window for the politics of “big man,” leadership, by mostly men, to save South Africa.

Professor Michelle Williams of Wits University argues that a healthy democracy must have two things: administrative capacity and state legitimacy. With the collapse of national power utility Eskom and basic services, one can argue that there is no administrative capacity, and with the lower voter turnout, there is no state legitimacy.

It is important to note that the major electoral victories of the African National Congress (ANC) were heavily underwritten by non-political party organizations. The strength of organizations such as the South African National Civics Organization, Congress of South African Trade Unions, the United Democratic Front, and many others drew South Africans to the polls to support the ANC. What we are seeing now is the opposite, the drowning  of civil society in a pool of political parties.

As these parties gear up for next year’s elections, the crisis of political representation deepens. It is more than clear that the ANC has lost its leadership role. The discussion in the public sphere is that South Africa must prepare for coalition governments. Whether such shifts in power and representation can bring South Africa out of what now borders on embarrassment in the continent and the world remains to be seen.

Further Reading