How South Africa’s Unregistered Voters Can Swing the Next Elections

Politicians and political parties bullishly take centre stage during elections, fuelling the idea that elections are about slogans, rallies, big speeches, and even bigger egos. The truth is that elections are decided by voters.

It is not a beauty contest where most people are mere spectators while a select few judge and decide the winner; it is a group project.

In South Africa, it is a group project of almost 40 million people of voting age who, on election day, can — through our individual and collective power — change the future by deciding who to hire and fire through the stroke of our pens in the ballot box.

However, if the 2021 elections are any indication of our failure to harness the power of the vote, in 2024 we could once again see only 12 million people show up to vote.

At a time where political parties are most obsessed with internal fighting, filling up stadiums and optics, more voters showing up will remind every politician that in a democracy, the power belongs to the people.

Elections are decided by the voters who show up. Increasingly, South Africans are not doing so, leaving this most important task of selecting a government to a few [voters].

After the last voter registration weekend for the 2024 elections, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) announced that over 1.2 million voters have been added to the voters roll since 2019.

This means that over 27 million South Africans are now registered to vote, however 14 million South Africans are still not registered. If an election were to [be] held today, they would not be allowed to vote even if they did show up. This number is important.

In the 2019 national and provincial South African elections, 17 million people turned out to vote. 10 million of those people voted for the African National Congress, which with 58% became the largest party elected into parliament.

If the 14 million unregistered voters in South Africa today decided to register and vote for one party or person in 2024, they would collectively have the power to unseat the largest political party: the power to change the outcome of the vote and the destiny of the country.

For South Africans, the 2024 elections could be the most consequential in recent history. In perpetual darkness, with millions living in poverty, millions unemployed, most living without basic services and, I dare say, all of us living in fear of violent crime at each other’s hands, the stakes could not be higher for a much-needed pivot in the trajectory of the country.

Since the 2019 elections, we have had many collective moments of crises: the Covid-19 pandemic, natural disasters wiping out households and communities, the July 2021 riots, Stage 6 load shedding and countless revelations about the cost of corruption for all of us have induced widespread shock, despair, anger and hopelessness.

Many people believe there is nothing we can do, however, even with its limitation’s elections provide an opportunity to everyone to do something: we can vote numbers that shake up the status quo.

Politics is the power to act, and every action matters, big or small. Voting seems like a small action for five minutes every five years, but it is so much more. Voting is an effort of millions.

Towards a less predictable election

Despite the predictions of political parties and research polls, no one truly knows what the results will be until voters show up. In fact, the more voters show up the less predictable the election outcome will be.

It is to the advantage of politicians, particularly those already in power, when fewer people show up on voting day. If only politicians and their loyal supporters show up, then they win a greater share of the vote even if they do not win the support of the majority of voters who choose not to vote.

In the United States of America, voter suppression is a common tool used to dissuade Black and Hispanic voters from showing up. Yet in 2020, when the number of Black voters in the State of Georgia increased by 25% from the last election, it was 1,200 votes in Georgia that flipped the State from traditionally Republican to Democrat and ensured Joe Biden’s unlikely win over incumbent President Donald Trump.

Every vote matters

In a proportional representation system like the one in South Africa, it is particularly true that every vote matters. Votes, even for parties that do not win seats in parliament, increase the number of votes each party needs in order to get a seat in parliament and reduce the chances of one-party dominance.

Every vote is a vote for more accountability, for effort and more respect for the voice of voters. [At] a time where political parties are most obsessed with internal fighting, filling up stadiums and optics, more voters showing up will remind every politician that in a democracy, the power belongs to the people.

Ultimately, how I use my vote will affect your life and how you vote will affect mine. In the two voter registration weekends in the lead up to the 2024 elections, the IEC has recorded less than 1 million new registrations and approximately 4 million people have checked their registration to make sure their information is accurate.

This engagement is far lower than the 39.7 million South Africans who are eligible to register and vote. As the clock runs down to the president’s proclamation of elections, which closes the voters roll for the 2024 election, let us encourage every person over the age of 18 to register, to check their details and to give themselves a fair chance to participate in this all-important election.

Like in any group project, no member of the group should be left behind. No member should forego their responsibility to the collective and we should all care about the efforts of others. This is not only the work of the IEC or political parties. It is all of our responsibility if we are to make our democracy a true reflection of the will and power of the people.

Tessa Dooms is the director of programmes at the Rivonia Circle, and co-author of ‘Coloured, How classification became culture’.

Article first appeared in The Africa Report.

Photo by Element5 Digital via Unsplash.