For the first time most adults didn't vote

This compares to the 86% of adult population who voted in 1994

For the first time, most adults didn't vote

13 May 2019

For the first time in democratic South Africa, less than half the adult population went to the polls. And the ANC was elected by only slightly more than one in four adults, GroundUp reports.

In 1994, 86% of adults voted.

More than half of the people eligible to vote elected the ANC. Since then, except for 2009, there has been a steady decline in the percentage of people participating in elections. It would be unrealistic to expect the euphoria of 1994 to be matched, but the decline in voter participation is alarming.

The ANC received fewer votes in 2019 than ever before despite the population being nearly 1.7 times bigger than in 1994.

But the picture isn't rosy for the biggest opposition party either. In the first democratic election, the National Party received more votes than the DA did this year.

Apathy vs anger?

So why is voter participation dropping? Is it apathy?

It's likely that a large number of people don't vote simply because they have no interest in politics. But this is probably not the whole story.

In the run-up to the elections, GroundUp heard the same message repeated by protesters who were angry at what they saw as government failures.

They did not threaten to vote for opposition parties rather than the ruling party. Instead they threatened not to vote.

Of course, what people say in the heat of a protest and what they end up doing are not always the same. But this does suggest that anger is a big factor in declining turnout as well. And often, it can be a combination of anger and apathy in the same person.

The inevitable disappointment of ruling parties - and we use the plural because not only the ANC rules at provincial and local level - failing to fulfil their promises, plus the massive corruption of the Zuma administration has probably contributed to low participation.

Also, let's not forget how the arms deal under Thabo Mbeki, as well as his AIDS denialism, soured the positive image of the ANC in the 2000s.

But all this is just speculation. Properly understanding declining participation is a task for researchers.

So what?

People who haven't voted have chosen not to be counted, so they shouldn't complain, some argue. This is true to some extent.

But declining voter participation does undermine the legitimacy of a democratic system, at least a little.

Particularly worrying is that the number of young people participating has dropped dramatically. In April, the Parliamentary Monitoring Group pointed out that the number of 18- and 19-year-olds who registered in 2019 was nearly half than the number in 2014.

Lower turnout also points to a loss of confidence in normal politics. That, in turn, can lead to more support for ethnically divisive parties.

We've seen that in this election: 3rd, 4th and 5th places went to the EFF, IFP and FF+, parties which, to put it politely, built their campaigns on race. Together, they won nearly 17% of the valid vote.

Not since the National Party in 1994 - in very different circumstances - has race-based politics won such a large percentage of the vote.

We think that is deeply troubling.