Citizens and politics are two inseparable words in a democratic environment. The first South African democratic election was held in April 1994 under an interim Constitution, where the ANC emerged victorious with a 62% majority. The existing four provinces were replaced with the current nine provinces. South Africa held her second election in 1999, with the ANC emerging victorious again with about two-thirds of the total vote cast. In the April 2004 election, the ANC won the national vote with 69.68% and the celebration of 10 Years of Freedom was attended by heads of state and government delegations from across the world. The participation of voters in a series of elections between 1994-1999 was documented except for 1999; when there was no voters’ roll. Reports according to Africa Portal said, “voter turnout in national elections was extremely high in earlier elections (89% in 1999) and has steadily decreased over time, with a sharp drop in voter turnout between 2014 (75%) and 2019 (66%)”. In a typical democratic setting, the first few elections always record-high turnout of voters with a gradual decline as the in subsequent elections. Even though the same pattern was noticed in the electioneering years in South Africa, that of 2019 was obdurate! The level of participation of citizens in municipal elections has also been observed to be very low, with less than half of registered voters (48%) participating in the 2000 and 2006 elections; this has gradually increased in subsequent elections.
Citizens have a lot of rights and responsibilities when it comes to political activities and public welfare. When citizens are involved in decision-making, they establish the democratic principle and socioeconomic changes in society. Activism initiated by citizens is a powerful tool that can bring the desired result to the community. There is this notion that citizens with higher socioeconomic status are always at the forefront of political activities because they seem to have all the time, money, and civic skills necessary for participation. Studies have shown that dominant models of political participation play down the psychology of the involvement (such as why people participate) and focus more on who engages in political activities. Recent development in politics shows that many citizens eager to have a significant political impact have self-interest above general interest. Such citizens will spend time mobilising support and spending money for friends who can protect their interests when they are elected into office. There has been a decline in citizen’s political participation, especially in the national elections over the past years. Even though there is a gradual increase in the voting age population, there has not been a commensurate increase in the total population of registered voters as evidenced in the number of votes cast in the 2019 national elections, which was lower than both the 2014 and 2009 elections despite a steady increase in the voting-age population. This trend of events portends great danger for South Africa’s democracy. It must be noted that this challenge is not only peculiar to South Africa alone but has also been observed in some other developing countries. According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, “the world for the last two decades and revealed that despite the growth in the global voter population and the number of countries that hold elections, the global average voter turnout has decreased significantly since the early 1990s.” Further analysis by International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance suggests that “global voter turnout was only 66% (the same turnout for South Africa’s 2019 elections) for the period 2011–2015, down from 70% in the 1990s.” Lack of confidence in our political leaders has been identified as one of the principal reasons why the interest of citizens in political activities has continued to decline. For instance, a report showed that in 2017, citizens’ confidence in the then South Africa president (Jacob Zuma) decreased in all institutions to 24%, which was significantly increased to 48% under President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Three basic reasons why citizens are expected to participate in political activities
It deepens democracy: The more citizens participate in political activities, the more democratic it becomes. There are many reasons why some people have decided never to partake in any electioneering activities. The major reason for this attitude is that citizens are not getting the dividends of democracy. To make matters worse, some elected officers are being tried for one corrupt activity or the other. Some people are fed up and believe it’s better to stay aloof than to participate in any political activities that will not move the country to a better level. Even with this, only the citizens have the democratic right to instil societal changes. Most citizens do not know that the power to change the country’s situation lies with the people and not the politicians. As a result, many citizens abdicate their responsibilities to the detriment of generations yet unborn. Citizens’ participation in political matters means that everyone is working towards a common goal of improving the living conditions.
It will put politicians on their toes: Most politicians capitalise on citizens’ ignorance to manipulate political activities and processes within the country. But recently, citizens are now aware of their fundamental rights and the importance of getting involved in democratic processes. Women and youths constitute a greater percentage of the voting population in South Africa, and their voting pattern must not be taken for granted by politicians who want to win any election. With this, politicians have to be at the mercy of the citizens in a democratic setting to realise their political ambitions.
It brings about improvement in the citizens’ socioeconomic status: With citizens’ participation in political activities and processes, it guarantees the election of the right people in power. Suppose the citizens must get the dividends of democracy. In that case, they must learn to be resilient, shun bribery and vote-buying, expose corrupt political leaders and hold the elected officers accountable. Citizens must also be ready to vote out elected leaders willing to seek a second term in office who have performed below expectations. Involvement of citizens in political activities will help to curb the excesses of politicians who are there to exploit the masses through corruption, money laundering and reckless governance.
In conclusion, citizens are a significant player in the deepening of democracy in South Africa. Voter turnout at national elections is steadily decreasing, with the 2019 elections registering the lowest turnout in democratic history. Every citizen must not allow the antics of the political elites to discourage them from demonstrating their franchise. Even though South Africa seems to be a dominant party state due to ANC’s consistent electoral victory over time, there should still be ways by which the citizens can dictate the pace of political activities vis-à-vis other political parties who may be a better alternative to deliver the dividends of democracy.
Dr. Nneka Akwu is a researcher at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. She writes in her personal capacity