By Bertie Jacobs
The punishment does not fit the crime. South Africa has an endemic, growing and unique disease that is not only affecting the health of our country’s democratic structures, but is also an ill-conceived form of retribution for the lack of service delivery.
Voter turnout continues to decline, but abstention is not the cure for consternation. It is a matter the North-West University (NWU) is hoping to address through its unique blend of teaching-learning initiatives.
The last number of election cycles – both nationally and locally – have seen a decline in voter turnout. Viewed through the prism of voter participation, the picture painted is obscure. Shouldn’t more voters turn out to voice their disdain if they feel empty promises continue to be made?
According to Naledi Modise, a NWU expert on voter behaviour, elections, electoral systems and political participation, this is a perplexing phenomenon. One, she says, that can be attributed to democratic dividends. Or rather, the lack thereof.
“We have seen fewer and fewer voters turn out with every election since about 2009. First, it is a response to the socio-economic circumstances of the majority of the voters. This is due to a lack of democratic dividends. The majority feels that they are not really receiving the benefits of the democracy that they were promised. Their socio-economic status and circumstances have not really improved. Second, there is a decreased faith in or even a distrust of the democratic institutions that were established during the transition to democracy.”
Now, South Africa’s largest voting bloc is non-voters, and accountability for the dilemma as well as solutions are needed.
“The lack of delivery in terms of improving the social circumstances of the people who vote for them is the responsibility of those in government and of the governing party, which is the ANC. What you also see with the decline of voter turnout is a protest against the ANC with regard to services the voters have not received. So, instead of voting, they choose not to.”
However, this is not where the buck stops.
“The opposition parties need to understand that they are also responsible because they have not been able to stimulate or engage the electorate in such a way that the electorate sees them as viable alternatives. The political parties within the country have different responsibilities - and to a large extent they have all failed in fulfilling those responsibilities.”
A solution is through voter education, as it allows the voting public to execute their civic responsibilities in an informed manner. The NWU believes in following both the formal and the informal route to accomplishing this.
The university’s School of Government Studies in the Faculty of Humanities provides students with an understanding of the theory and practice of government;, the nature of politics, policymaking and public administration;, as well as foreign policy and government security. Students studying for this degree are those who want to make a positive impact on a rapidly changing society, and they are eager to develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes to help them make that contribution.
“Rectifying voter behaviour is going to be mammoth task. We need people to register to vote and we need them to understand their civic duties. One of the ways to do that is to create social programmes that teach people what the importance of voting is, as opposed to deciding not to vote at all when they are unhappy with the political party they have elected to office. I think this is the missing link.
“Also, we need to create more collaborative spaces for institutions like the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) to share initiatives such as voter registration. The more we create opportunities for the public to engage with non-partisan institutions like the IEC, the better,” says Modise.
What punishment fits the crime, then?
The punishment is choosing to be informed. The punishment is participation.