People queue to cast their vote at a polling station in Soweto in the country's first democratic elections in this April 1994 file photo. Photo: Denis Farrell

More people cast their vote in these elections than ever but voter turnout was also at its lowest level since 1999, writes Craig Dodds.



More people cast their vote in these elections than ever, according to the IEC, but voter turnout was also at its lowest level since 1999 – the first elections in which there was a proper voters’ roll.

This continues a worrying trend of declining voter turnout and, when the number of votes cast is compared to the voting-age population, the figure is even lower.

By late yesterday, with 99.74 percent of the vote counted, total voter turnout in elections 2014 stood at 73.38 percent.

This is down from 89.28 percent in 1999, 76.73 percent in 2004 and 77.3 percent in 2009.

“You can twist statistics in any way, but what we should be looking at is not just the numbers, but the proportion of the population which ought to have voted, and that is what has declined,” said independent political analyst Dr Somadoda Fikeni.

South Africa compares well with African peers, but not with Scandinavian countries like Denmark and Norway, for example, or Australia, where voting is compulsory.

According to the website International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, Ghana had a turnout of 80 percent in its last elections in 2012, Tanzania 39.49 percent in 2010 and Zambia 53.65 percent in 2011.

Denmark had a turnout of 87.74 percent in 2011, Norway 78.23 percent in 2013 and Australia 93.23 percent in 2013.

These countries also had very high levels of voter turnout in relation to the numbers of people eligible to vote – consistent with high levels of voter registration.

Fikeni said while South Africa’s figures were still “reasonable”, it was worrying that they had been declining progressively.

“The most disaffected persons at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder are the ones who are most likely not going to participate in the system,” Fikeni said.

“The question is, how do they express their frustration if they are not participating inside.”

The numbers would be of little concern for an established democracy, “but for us it’s young people, angry at the fact that you have no opportunities, who may be outside the margins and do not see themselves as stakeholders in our nation-building project.

“That can be destructive in a sense of causing social disorder. So it’s not just voter turnout and apathy, but the kind of population that is outside, which tends to turn out in numbers when you have protests, some of which can be violent.”

A sense of powerlessness was behind the trend, he said, with many believing their vote made no difference.

The sense of alienation also extended beyond politics.

“They believe the big corporates have disproportionate power, and little is done – whether people collude on the prices of bread or anything. More of a slap on the wrist is what follows.”

He attributed the high turnout in Scandinavian countries to higher levels of political consciousness and civic activism there.

Citizens also had evidence of influencing policies.

“Also, their political parties tend to be ideologically distinct – you’re either for a social democratic system or a more conservative system, one coming with a welfare system and higher taxes. So the policy issues are very important there,” Fikeni said.

He did not advocate compulsory voting in South Africa.

“Let the turnout be voluntary, because once you force people and even punish those who do not turn out, you have a grudging compliance with the system, and people who have been living under a coercive system for centuries just do not like the word compulsory.”

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Weekend Argus