While elections remain a fundamental aspect of democracy and a legitimate transition of leadership to key positions in public offices, it has become the most tempered process by power enthusiast in many nations. This is reflective of the democratic backsliding, that is increased election misconduct and mistrust observed in recent years especially in Africa, with more than a third of the polls being a little more than political theater – aimed at earning legitimacy for leaders who arguably lack a popular mandate. The quality of these elections continues to vary across countries, with some merely serving as an obligatory ritual by which leaders maintain their claim on power. As a result citizen’s confidence on election process has gradually diminished, and also the legitimacy of those that occupy public offices is questionable. In South Africa, the 2019 general election marked the lowest voters participation since the acclaimed dawn of democracy in 1994. One dominant interpretation of this low turnout is decreased in voters’ apathy; in that the portion of the population has lost faith on the country’s political leadership transition process and thus chooses to boycott the election. With six million South African youth not registering to vote in the 2019 general election, it would be too simplistic to suggest just a loss of interest, but a scrutiny of the entire process is necessary. The election has revealed that while South African youths are active in civil society, this has not translated to their participation in the formal process of voting. Additionally, it indicates that while most South Africans may still be confident that the electoral system is free, fair and without intimidation, they are skeptical if it represents voters’ views and its ability to hold accountable and thus remove non-performing leaders. In an effort to restore confidence on election process, it is therefore critical as a nation to comprehend what has escalated diminished citizen’s confidence on the election process. This decline in participating in an election may be interpreted as a degeneration of the government and its organs through the loss of moral stature, the erosion of its integrity and disillusionment of a progressive socio-economic performance. Below is an account of some of the factors explaining the diminished citizen’s confidence in the election process in South Africa.
The integrity of the procedural of the democratic process in South Africa has been severely undermined by the increasing corruption practices in public offices. South Africa faces numerous corruption scandals in its democratic history, with the most notorious yet being the government excess spending of R200 million on upgrading of the former president Zuma’s homestead. This has led to the formation of a judicial commission of enquiry, commonly known as the Zondo Commission, which is currently still investigating allegations of the state capture and fraud in public sector including organs of the state. Moreover, the delayed justice, with over a year of investigating and making recommendations on the state capture by the Zondo Commission, further worsen the citizen’s confidence on the democratic processes and the state organs in implementing justice and fairness as a corrective measure to the rising corruption scandals.
The rising inequality and uneven development in South Africa also contributes to exacerbate citizen’s frustration on the government. As South Africa marks 27 years of democracy, the dream democracy still remains elusive for ordinary South Africans. Two apparently persistent legacies of apartheid characterise the current socio-political realities, that is, the apartheid-constructed socio-political identities, and the poverty concentrated black African population. To date the nation remains highly divided, in terms of race, class and gender.
A lack of accountability that extends to lower levels of government with state resources being used to fund party events and campaigns during the 2016 local government elections in some municipalities, demonstrates an increasingly blurred line between party and state. With South Africa’s already skewed public service being prone to inefficiencies and in competencies from local governments, a deviation of resources further diminishes people trust on any democratic processes.
Moreover, with political parties succumbing to factionalism it further divide party members and discourages their participation to the election process. This was evident in the 2019 general election where the African Nation Congress (ANC) and the Democratic Alliance (DA) both succumbed to factional politics. Factionalism within the ANC culminated with the reluctance to resign as the president of the nation by Jacob Zuma. In DA factionalism was a product of the attempt by party bosses to promote black leadership within the party by entrenching control to the detriment of the freedom of expression and debate on the political and policy trajectory of the political party to uproot a seemingly embedded culture of racism that effectively silenced, excluded, and undermined black leadership. Such a move divides party supporters and some members may choose to abscond the entire election process.
Fraud and violence has been associated with South Africa’s election process. Incidences of double voting, tampering of ballot boxes, racism and violence have constantly formed the most part of election news in South Africa. Fraud tends to create incentives for violence between government security forces and opposition party supporters. In a nation with a long history of violence, including xenophobic attacks, this activates a security dilemma between and within communities that encourages further fighting. Violence enact fear over life and property while the election misconduct creates mistrust on the entire process, thus people tend to refrain from the election altogether
South Africa therefore remains a hugely divided nation, riddled with corruption and a decade of lethargic leadership. Apart from the above factors, the COVID-19 pandemic also presents unique challenging conditions that might further diminish citizen’s confidence and participation in the upcoming municipal election. Public health concerns, which have led to, imposed lockdowns and social distancing have largely if not completely omitted physical rallies and campaigns. Thenceforth it is essential to reflect on what can be done to restore voters’ confidence and therefore their participation in the upcoming municipal election schedule to be held not later than 1st of November. In an attempt to curb this predicament the South African Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) is proposing the use of electronic voting systems (e-voting). Technology can arguably improve the credibility of the upcoming election amid the COVID-19 pandemic due to its ability to limit human contact and crowds, therefore facilitating campaigning, rallies and voting exercises with minimal health risks. However, technology only mirrors the moral and ethical values and intents of society that applies. Adopting e-voting systems is one thing; ensuring integrity and credibility of election is another thing. Therefore, even with the deployment of e-voting technologies the government needs to collaborate with other stakeholders including civil society, to instill a political culture and value towards a credible election among South Africans. Other initiatives to accommodate for the COVID-19 pandemic conditions, the IEC has postponed the election date and provide a flexible duration for the election date, which is now set to be held no later than 1st November. Further to this move, the IEC has extended the registration period for political parties candidates. Despite these initiatives, the following actions need to also be considered to instill confidence and thus improve citizens’ participation in the upcoming election: –
Promote an informed and civic educated citizenry – Citizen engagement is crucial in whatever efforts and initiatives taken towards the Municipal Election – this may including keeping the citizens abreast of the all the initiatives taken as well as the reasons for making any decisions.
Improve the transparency of the election process including transparency of the voting process, ballot collation and counting process. E-voting systems have a crucial role to play on this aspect as it can facilitate live streaming of the election process.
Recognizing that truth matters in democracy – Truth is important to trust, which must be earned by each public official. As a nation, South Africa should not enable, disseminate or support, untruths, lies and any misinformation. Nor should the nation be silent or fail to hold accountable those who systematically communicate falsehoods. This aspect is however challenging with the rise of social media that makes it easy to propagate false, misleading, and baseless information. As a nation, South Africa should strive to openly and timely share facts and data on election and any other policy issues. Providing citizens with greater access to the truth will advance democratic ideals, including fairness, equal rights and justice. This will allow citizens to make ethical choices when evaluating political leaders and vying candidates and also to hold elected officials accountable to their actions in public office.
As the factors escalating diminished citizens’ confidence on election are diverse, so are the efforts in restoring confidence needs to be. The government of South Africa needs to be cognizance that needs to collaborate with various stakeholders in restoring confidence in the upcoming municipal election. Restoring trust in the government and on democratic processes in the nation should be an ethical goal for national political reconciliation and a civic responsibility of a wider array of stakeholders.
Maria Lauda Goyayi is a researcher at the School of Management, IT and Public Governance, UKZN. She writes in her personal capacity.