General: Just what does that poor turnout mean?

The dismal turnout for local government election is the strongest indicator yet that the masses have had enough, and that democracy is under threat. It was, as Mark Heywood points out in a Daily Maverick analysis, the final written warning to the political and economic elite to act swiftly to restore trust in the political system. 'Failure to do so will hasten the end of democracy in SA. 1 November 2021 was the day we got our written warning,' Heywood writes. He ventures further, saying the elections was a 'watershed moment' in post-apartheid SA and effectively spells a return to 'minority rule'. '... only a minority of eligible South Africans chose to vote. The vast majority either didn’t register or registered but then didn’t vote.

The no-vote included tens of millions of people, most of them coming from South Africa’s swelling underclass, made up of people who are young, gifted, black… and poor.' What we are witnessing, says Heywood, is a profound alienation of the masses from those who work the political system 'and dare we say it, from the democratic system itself, which is held to have failed to deliver'. Heywood says that given that we 'are living in a time of unprecedented unemployment, unprecedented gender-based violence, a year that will see the highest natural death toll since the worst year of the AIDS epidemic', and when basic education and health systems have broken down, it was expected that people would have seized on the opportunity to capture local government and direct it to meet these needs. But they didn’t, partly because they know that the gangsters that control local government don’t roll over and play rule of law so easily, he adds. 'The no-vote shows our social and political contract is close to breaking.' He warns that the anger and desperation that lurks just below the surface of society, the thin line between respect for the rule of law and rejection of it, became evident in the eight days of looting in July. 'And yet, despite all the angst and hand-wringing that played out in business and formal political society, we quickly moved on from it. Four months later, next to nothing has happened other than the restoration of the measly R350 Social Relief of Distress Grant which is still surrounded by bureaucratic indignity and inaccessible to millions who need it. So, (the) great no-vote should be seen as another manifestation of this alienation.' 'Truth be told, they don’t believe the present system can be made to work, so why participate in it?'

At least half of the adult population will not be represented by the results, raising the question about how representative SA's democracy really is, says Mikhail Moosa, project leader for the South African Reconciliation Barometer at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. In a News24 analysis, Moosa writes that local government councils across the country will be elected and formed with only a minority of the public's input. 'A voter turnout of 50% would represent a political crisis far beyond internal party factions or the messy business of coalition-building. Low voter turnout, combined with the rising number of unregistered voters, suggests that our democracy is becoming increasingly unrepresentative,' Moosa notes. One of the primary reasons for low voter registration and turnout levels is the lack of trust between citizens and their representatives, he adds. 'Most respondents to the 2019 South African Reconciliation Barometer agreed that voting is pointless because all parties are the same, and many South Africans believe that their vote makes no difference. After a decade where unemployment has risen, gains in poverty reduction have reversed, and government corruption has gone largely unpunished, South Africans are presented with a Hobson's choice between voting for political parties perceived by many to be untrustworthy or not voting at all.' The unrest from July has viscerally shown the consequences of a leadership crisis, where citizens feel unhappy with their circumstances and ignored by their representatives, says Moosa.

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