667 12.02.2014 A white man dances among black people at the African National Congress (ANC) headquarter Luthuli house in Sauer Street, DA was suppose to handover memorandum to the ANC ruling party yesterday. Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng

Much needs to be done, but despite bizarre scenes and pontificating parties, voters believe their ballot is relevant, writes Mcebisi Ndletyana.

Registration for the fifth democratic elections is pretty much complete. And the election date has been set for May 7. Being serious voters that I know you dear readers are, you probably expected a serious campaign to finally get under way. Not quite so.

Start with the election date itself. The announcement didn’t quite happen the way President Jacob Zuma had planned it. It was leaked before he could make the formal announcement, denying him a presidential moment.

Such occasions enable presidents to remind us they’re in charge, that they decide these things. Helen Zille had other ideas. She wanted the attention and grabbed the moment away from the president.

Zille was just being Zille. She was back at it just this past Wednesday, picking a fight with the ANC. And, the ruling party fell for it.

Actually, they seemed to be in a dilemma. The party knew it was being provoked into a violent reaction, but they just couldn’t restrain themselves. Uyas’iqhela, lo-madam! Someone probably shouted at Luthuli House, vowing to show Zille who’s boss, especially in downtown Joburg. True to form, the comrades went for the DA.

And it was an interesting sight – the DA I mean. The supporters were almost exclusively black – isn’t the DA predominantly white? Where did they get so many black people? And where are the white people that dominate the DA?

Just as one was trying to make sense of these bizarre scenes, Mmusi Maimane shows up on the news that evening only to make the whole saga even more surreal. Seated alongside the ANC’s Jackson Mthembu for a grilling by eNCA’s Jeremy Maggs, Maimane denies Mthembu’s accusations that the DA booked hospital beds in preparation for casualties.

Admitting to the accusation would have meant that the DA knew the march would turn violent, but went ahead with it anyway. Maimane flatly denies the accusation and insists that Mthembu reveals the source of that information.

Here’s the interesting part: the same Maimane had admitted to booking hospital beds just earlier in the morning on Power FM’s Tim Modise show. And Mthembu was on the same show with Maimane.

The interview with Maggs got even more interesting.

Instead of pointing out that he – Maimane – had admitted to the hospital bookings just earlier, Mthembu said his source was “DA members”. Then Maimane’s denial became ever more spirited: “I’m a DA member,” Maimane reminded Mthembu, “but I don’t know any of that”. Mthembu let him go – perhaps they’re not such enemies after all.

Wednesday revealed the irony that is encapsulated in politics. Politicians want to be taken seriously, but are capable of such idiotic antics. At times it boggles the mind why they would believe that the watching public cannot see through them.

Politicians may not always be inspiring, but the voter registration figures are not deceptive. It may be too early to tell, but they reflect a worrying picture confirming what we’re seeing playing out in our neighbourhoods and in evening news broadcasts.

Protests have become more frequent and violent. This year alone we have apparently registered 2 947 protests in just three months, an unprecedented number.

Violent protests have different causes, but one of them is the feeling that the system is not working. Citizens are not being heard and thus resort to violence. If not resort to violence, another reaction to frustration is withdrawal from the political system. Why bother voting for politicians who become indifferent to your needs once elected?

Registration figures suggest that disengagement may possibly be setting in. A quick glimpse at the figures, however, is somewhat flattering. Today, of the 31.4 million South Africans who qualify to vote, 25.3 million are registered. This represents 80.5 percent of the eligible voting population, and is a clear intention to vote.

A closer look, especially in relation to previous rounds of voter registrations, reveals a different picture. The customary two rounds of registration that preceded the past two elections each registered more than 3 million new voters.

This time round the number of new registrations dropped down to 2.3 million – a drop of more than 700 000. Registration rates among the youth improved in one respect, while remaining worrisome in another. Of the 18 to 19-year-olds, only 22 percent are registered to vote, which is the lowest of all the age groups.

The picture is somewhat better when it comes to the 20 to 29-year-olds. A majority of them – 54 percent – are registered to vote.

The 30s and older groups have an even higher registration rate.

The profile of registered voters is of special interest to political parties. Age, gender and income all have a bearing on one’s electoral choice. Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters targets young people, especially those who are unemployed.

Because this constituency lives on the margins of society, it was always a concern whether they’d bother to register. But quite a number of them have registered and even the size of the 18 to 19-year-olds group, though smallest compared to other groups, tripled in this registration round.

It would be foolhardy, of course, to draw any correlation between the EFF and the relative rise in the number of young registered voters.

The Independent Electoral Commission went out of its way to attract young people, using all sorts of social media, advertisements and celebrities.

All this may well have had something to do with more young voters registering. Gauteng, especially, got its groove back. It registered the highest number of new voters, after a very uninspiring first round in November.

Malema’s impact cannot be discarded either, especially because his party speaks to their concerns.

Conversely, it is doubtful if the ANC Youth League can claim any credit in enticing young voters to register.

The Young Lions, if they can still be referred to as such, have been rather preoccupied with existential issues. Who knows if they’ll live long enough to see the elections?

That said, the profile of the registered population stands the ruling party in good stead. The country-side alone, which make up 35 percent of the voting population, is ANC country. Women and older folk are largely ANC supporters.

This is where incumbency and the ruling party’s social democratic inclination make a difference.

ANC policies have made and continue to make a difference in the lives of the poor and marginalised in our society. Some literally live off the state. They receive cash transfers, food, paraffin, electricity and water.

Old women are especially grateful for grants because quite a number of them take care of grandchildren. The ANC is good to these folks – and they won’t believe anything to the contrary.

Overall, even if the republic now seems engulfed in chaos, the state is fully functional.

Our soccer team may be beaten by failed states, but state institutions in this country are highly effective.

This explains our impressive levels of voter participation. People vote because their ballot still means something.

They experience and see progress in their lives. And this is confirmed by voter turnout. It hovered around 76 percent in the last two elections.

This puts the country among those with the highest voter turnouts in the world. The republic may seem in pandemonium, but it is alive!

* Mcebisi Ndletyana is head of the Political Economy Faculty at Mistra.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Sunday Independent