South Africa: The real story behind the vote

May 18, 2014
A voter registers at a polling station on May 7 in the restive Bekkersdal Township, west of Johannesburg. Three voting tents wer

No sooner had the final results of South Africa's May 7 national elections been announced than President Jacob Zuma gave a predictably self-congratulatory speech lauding the result as “the will of all the people”.

The reality however is that the incumbent African National Congress’ (ANC) victory came from a distinct minority of “the people”. The real “winner”, as has been the case since the 2004 poll, was the stay-away “vote”.

Since South Africa’s first-ever democratic election in 1994, the hard facts are that there has been a directly proportionate relationship between the overall decline in support for the ANC and the rise of the stay-away vote. A quick look at the relevant percentages/numbers from each election confirms the reality.

In 1994, of the 23,063,910 eligible voters, 85.53% (19,726,610) voted while the remaining 14.47% (3,337,300) stayed away. The ANC received support from 53.01% (12,237,655) of the eligible voting population.

In 1999, of the 25,411,573 eligible voters, 62.87% (15,977,142) voted while the remaining 37.13 per cent (9,434,431) stayed away. The ANC received support from 41.72% (10,601,330) of the eligible voting population.

In 2004, of the 27,994,712 eligible voters, 55.77% (15,612,671) voted while the remaining 44.23% (12,382,041) stayed away. The ANC received support from 38.87 per cent (10,880,917) of the eligible voting population.

In 2009, of the 30,224,145 eligible voters, 59.29% (17 919 966) voted while the remaining 40.71 percent (12,304,179) stayed away. The ANC received support from 38.55% (11,650,748) of the eligible voting population.

This year, of the 31,434,035 eligible voters, 59.34% (18,654,457) voted while the remaining 40.66%(12,779,578) stayed away. The ANC received support from 36.39& (11,436,921) of the eligible voting population.

It is quite an amazing “storyline” with two key tropes. At the same time that South Africa’s eligible voting population has risen by 8.4 million in 20 years, the number of people who have chosen not to vote has risen by 9,4 million.

At the same time, electoral support for the ANC, as a percentage of that voting population, has declined dramatically from 53% to 36%.

One of the main reasons why this “story” is most often buried in the margins of our political and electoral conversations and consciousness is that the official version conveniently ignores those citizens (most of whom are young people aged 18 to 20) who have not registered to vote and those who have registered but chosen not to vote.

It is similar to the politically inspired and artificially constructed distinction between the “official” and “unofficial” unemployment rate that has the effect of erasing millions from the officially recognised ranks of the jobless.

As a result, the official version of the elections (in many cases, mirrored by the media) is one in which there is a “high voter turnout” and where the ANC victory is presented as indicative of support from the “majority of voters”.

And so it is that the almost 13 million who decided not to take part in the elections (whether registered or not) are effectively airbrushed from the picture. The 11,5 million who voted for the ANC become “the people”. Stalin would be smiling approvingly.

What does this largely hidden tale tell us about the state of South Africa’s political system and, more broadly, of its democracy?

First, that a growing portion of the adult population, concentrated among the youth, has become alienated from the political system.

In societies such as South Africa's that are framed by a liberal capitalist socio-political order, the mere existence and functioning of representative democratic institutions and processes increasingly mask the decline of meaningful popular democratic participation and control.

This is in a context where elections have become the political playground of those with access to capitalist patronage and where electoral choice is largely reduced to different shades of grey.

Since the act of voting in such national elections is itself representative of either a belief in or acceptance of the existing order, or that meaningful change can result from such an act, the counter-act of not voting can be seen as representative of the opposite.

In other words, there is no inherent connection between voting and deepening of democracy in ways that can make a systemic difference in the lives of those who face exclusion and marginalisation.

This speaks to a reality that those on the “other side of the fence” appear wholly unwilling to face; that for some time now, almost half of South Africans able to vote clearly do not see voting as being in their social, material and political interests. Apathy is simply a convenient and patronising “explanation”.

It also speaks to the refusal to recognise that the conditions for meaningful and popular participation are embedded in changing the structural relations of power.

Indeed, the developmental legacy of post-1994 South Africa has been, and continues to be, characterised by the false twinning of a democratic form to the needs of a capitalist “market”.

This has resulted in a creeping intolerance of legitimate political and social dissent, which is the lifeblood of any genuine democracy. This is fuelled largely by those in positions of political and economic power and policed by the coercive capacity of the state.

It has also produced a situation where institutionalised practices and forms of representative democracy such as elections — while largely accepted as a legitimate form of democratic expression — make little practical difference in the lives of so many. This is because since key decisions are taken by those that participate in, and manage, the capitalist “market”.

In his post-election speech, Zuma said the ANC’s electoral victory represents an “overwhelming mandate from our people … and reaffirms that the ANC remains the only true hope for the majority of our people”.

Clearly, he and his party have not read the whole story.

[Reprinted from The South African Civil Society Information Service. Dale McKinley is an independent writer, researcher and lecturer as well as political activist in South Africa.]

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