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Should African citizens be forced to participate in voting in elections?

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In the lengthening shadows, South Africans stand tall, their determination unwavering as they brave the queues to cast their votes. South Africans headed to the polls for their seventh democratic general election since apartheid ended in 1994. Over 27 million South Africans aged 18 and above registered for the elections, yet only about 58 percent of those registered actually voted, the writer says. – Picture: Henk Kruger / Independent Newspapers / May 29, 2024

By Zelna Jansen

The May elections have come and gone. Much of the discussion has centred around the formation of a national coalition government. Not much has been said about the fact that the number of voters casting their votes has declined by a whopping 8 percent since the previous national and provincial elections.

Is this decline in taking up the right to vote impacting the quality of South Africa’s democracy? If so, should South African citizens be forced to vote?

The decline of voters casting their votes has been ongoing. In 2004, 76 percent of registered voters cast their votes. In 2009, 77 percent of registered voters cast their votes. A rise of 1 percent. In 2014, 73 percent of registered voters cast their votes. In 2019, 66 percent of registered voters cast their votes and in the 2024 elections, only 58 percent of registered voters cast their votes.

I emphasis that the voting statistics are only those of the voters that have registered to vote with the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC).

To further exacerbate the decline in voting is that Statistics South Africa (Stats SA), noted that according to the latest Census results, South Africa’s population grew to 62 million citizens in 2022.

Of the 62 million only 27.8 million citizens registered to vote.

Stats SA also indicated that 17.1 million of the population is aged younger than 15 years. Another source, Statista, states that roughly 22.12 million of the population were aged between 0-19.

From the statistics above one can deduce that roughly ten million people have not registered to vote.

Other than wilfully not participating in elections, one must bear in mind that there may be reasons why the ten million citizens have not registered to vote. It is possible that some citizens with physical disabilities were not aware that the IEC has developed a voting aid to assist persons with disabilities and special needs to have an independent and secret ballot. Some eligible voters may be unconscious and hospitalised while others may suffer from mental incapacity or illness.

The increase in voter apathy is alarming. Voting is one of the measures to ensure that citizens participate in democracy. Exercising your right to choose the office bearer to represent you in making decisions affecting the country is paramount to democracy. Not voting will therefore impact South Africa’s democracy negatively.

Fortunately for South African citizens, voting is not the only method of participating in democracy. One of the key characteristics of South Africa’s democracy is that it is both representative and participatory.

Citizens vote for their political representatives to represent them in the national and provincial legislatures and make decisions on their behalf on bills, policies, and the passing of budgets for government departments.

Citizens also participate in governing decisions through government departments and the national and provincial legislatures asking the public to comment and express their views and opinions on the bills, policies, and budgets. But this does not mean that the government or legislatures are bound by your view or comment.

In terms of the Constitutional Court judgement of Merafong Demarcation Forum v President of the Republic of South Africa (2008), participating in the law-making process did not mean that one’s view, comment or opinion on a bill, policy or budget must be taken into account or bound the legislature. It is the public’s opportunity to influence the legislature or government.

The weight or priority given to the representative element and participatory element has been discussed in several Constitutional Court judgements. I reference the infamous constitutional judgement; Doctors for Life International v the Speaker of the National Assembly (2006) wherein majority justices of the Constitutional Court declared a bill invalid for lack of public participation.

The Constitutional Court ruled that national and provincial legislatures must provide meaningful opportunities for public participation in the law-making process and that measures are taken to ensure that people had the ability to take advantage of the opportunities provided.

In the above judgement there were Justices that did not agree with the majority ruling and raised concerns that giving so much weight to public participation element will undermine the right to vote.

Justice Van der Westhuizen stated that forcing the legislatures to conduct public participation in order to declare a bill valid, is an “… impermissible intrusion and has a fundamental impact on the value of the right to vote acquired through bitter struggle”.

“The approach undermines the right substantially.”

I am of the view that Justice Van der Westhuizen spoke prophetically. However, not in the sense that he may have thought at the time.

Although voter apathy has steadily been increasing, I have observed citizens participating in and influencing the making of laws, policies and other governing decisions affecting the country. Petitions have been submitted to legislatures and government departments. Protests have been held.

Citizens have been participating in democracy through other means than the right to vote. However, for citizens to exercise this right, requires a “know-how” and “resources”. Sadly, these requirements are lacking at a grassroots level.

There are imbizos and Taking of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures to the People at grassroots. However, if people do not have the opportunity to meaningfully participate and influence, these events are nothing more than public relations shows.

I therefore conclude that forcing people to vote is not the way to go as it may antagonise citizens. One could propose that the democratic institutions conduct a study as to how not exercising the right to vote impacts South Africa’s democracy and provide a way forward.

I further propose that the legislatures be politically supported to implement public participation mechanisms to empower grassroots communities with the knowledge and skills to influence and participate meaningfully. This could substantially strengthen South Africa’s democracy and even lessen voter apathy.

Zelna Jansen is an attorney specialising in law and policy reform, thought leader and opinion writer.