A strategy to counter voter apathy

A strategy to counter voter apathy

Democracy is a fragile thing. We need to protect it, or we risk losing it.

Earlier this year, when we first began discussing the development of our 2021-2024 strategy, we realised that during this period, South Africa would hold local government elections and a General Election and would mark 30 years of democracy. The main goal of OSF-SA’s current strategy cycle, which concludes at the end of the year, is to protect the pillars of South Africa’s democracy.

Given the nine years of former president Jacob Zuma’s rule, protecting the pillars of our democracy was a laudable goal. During that time, we saw thousands of people mass in our streets to protest the widespread corruption that characterised those years. Once Zuma resigned and Cyril Ramaphosa assumed the presidency of the country, there was a heightened sense that our country would reset, that perpetrators of economic crimes and other abuses would be brought to book and that the lived reality of millions of people in South Africa would improve once the incumbrances of corruption were removed. If only that were the case!

Voter turnout and participation in civic processes are a good diagnostic for the state of a country’s democracy. Historically, voting rights have been wielded to exclude large parts of the population – whether women in many parts of the world, Black people in South Africa or an electoral system such as that in the United States, which we now know was designed to benefit slaveholders.

With the attention of many people focused on the 2020 presidential elections in the United States, I thought back to 2016 and the vote that had brought Donald Trump to the highest office of that land. It was clear to me that while the outcome of that vote was a shock for many people, it was not a fluke.

The world is becoming increasingly divided – along racial lines – while inequality continues to grow. So, in 2020 as in 2016, I was not surprised at how close the voting seemed during the first day of counting in the US. Later, as mail-in ballots were added to the tally, I thought of the other dynamics at play. Even before CNN called the vote in Joe Biden’s favour, I became aware of the historically high number of voters during this election. While I am sure that the option to vote via mail played a part, this increased turnout, particularly amongst young people and first-time voters, was, I have to say, inspiring.

In South Africa, the situation is very different. During last year’s General Election, only 49 percent of the voting-age population cast their vote, which was the lowest voter turnout since 1994. Moreover, the Southern African Development Community observer mission noted a lower youth turnout at the polls. These trends speak to voter apathy, especially amongst younger people.

There are several reasons for voter apathy: a lack of understanding and engagement with political issues and civil rights; difficulty in getting to the polls, and of course the sense that one’s vote will not make a difference. Perhaps the latter is key to understanding the low voter turnout in South Africa. According to a survey report published by Afrobarometer this year, titled Are South Africans giving up on democracy? most South Africans would be willing to do without elections in exchange for jobs, housing and security. Furthermore, the report noted an increased acceptance for more authoritarian forms of government.

Last month saw the launch of research we commissioned from the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA) to understand our country’s democracy. The report, titled Understanding South Africa’s Democratic Trajectory, was instructive in helping us refine our strategy for the next four years. Issues highlighted in the report include the impact of state capture; the extent of private sector corruption; an examination of sexual and gender-based violence and recommendations to counter the scourge – as well as the need for the establishment of a political culture. The last point resonated strongly with our thinking around political education to ensure an active citizenry engaged with the democratic processes. One of the ways we intend to address this issue is by supporting civic and political education, but we do appreciate the disconnect young people face when the rights enshrined in our Constitution remain largely unrealised for so many of them.

The efforts of Stacey Abrahams and Fair Fight Georgia, the organisation she founded to ensure voter participation and to counter voter suppression – the very suppression which had seen her lose her bid to be governor of the state in 2018 – have proven instrumental to turning the traditionally Republican state blue, as well as clinching the presidency for Joe Biden. Fair Fight Georgia helped to register 800 000 new voters in the state.

In the USA, voters came out in their droves because they realised that their very lives were at stake, given the current administration’s scattershot approach to tackling COVID-19. However, it would be disingenuous to imagine that the high voter turnout was just about the pandemic. Health is a strong motivating factor, but the economy and race relations, including the polarisation in many parts of the US, were important factors too.

In addition to the health crisis, in South Africa, COVID-19 has exacerbated long-term systemic challenges, most notably in the economy with women more impacted that men, according to the National Income Dynamics Study-Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM) study, published in July this year. What will be the impact of this crisis on an already apathetic electorate?

The USA has shown that the time to take action is when democracy is most imperilled. Our new strategy is entirely focused on strengthening our democracy. We will build on the work we initiated around elections in 2018 and will focus on voter education for young people. We understand that voter education needs to begin long before elections and that advocating for democratic values takes a lot of time and investment. This is an investment we cannot afford to ignore. The recent elections in the USA are a timely reminder that voting has consequences and voting matters.

Written by Bulelwa Ngewana, Executive Director: OSF-SA.