Since the dawn of the democratic era in South Africa, the electoral system had been one of proportional representation, providing all parties an accurate representation of their electoral support. However, this has come along with issues of lack of accountability for elected representatives, the imposition of partisan interests in the selection of candidates, and the administration of public resources. In addition, alarming numbers of voter apathy, particularly amongst young people, have been registered throughout the years. To discuss both the possibilities of electoral reform and strategies to deal with voter apathy amongst the youth, Africa Unite held a hybrid dialogue on the 29th of October 2021. The event took place simultaneously in person at the Africa Unite offices in 6 Spin Street, 4th Floor IDASA building in Cape Town, and on Zoom. The date intended to be as close as possible to the 1st of November 2021 Municipal elections to unpack the upcoming elections, and the role of youth as it has become systematic in South Africa that elections become a breeding ground of violence and renewed racial tensions.
The session was facilitated by Miguel, who acted as co-moderator of the debate along with Keagan. The election context of South Africa and the contemporary issues brought by the electoral system were given to set the tone of the dialogue. Firstly, it was indicated that the problems faced by young South African democracy can be summarized in two issues: the lack of accountability within the current electoral system and the lack of direct power for the citizenry; and the large levels of voter apathy, particularly amongst the youth. It was pointed out that since 1994 there have been proposals to reform the electoral system, which was initiated to allow smaller parties to participate in the constitutional assembly. Most parties, however, observed flaws in the system and made various proposals, although none of them came to fruition. On the other hand, some crucial statistics were provided to understand voter apathy. For instance, in September 2021, the Independent Electoral Commission reported that 13 million eligible voters had not registered for the 2021 Municipal elections. This makes up for 22.26% of the adult population, with the majority of these non-voters being between the ages of 18 – 35 years. Following this brief background of the electoral system, Miguel gave the floor to Keagen for his first intervention.
Keagen covered some important topics such as the need for government technological efficiency, the creation of an Office of a Prime Minister that could balance out the power of the President and Parliament, and the importance of a constitutional court promoting social justice and not just a political battleground for political parties. However, the emphasis was mostly put on local government, where the greatest progress on voter participation could be made particularly through the creation of constituencies that provide local power to people instead of the party by direct election of representatives and provide a direct relationship with Council leaders.
During the second part of the dialogue, concerning the potential results of the upcoming elections, there were two main themes in discussion: the possible contributions of the coalition government and the use of resources (i.e., service delivery) in politics. On one hand, Keagen indicated that despite the limitations that might entail the formation of a coalition government, if small parties gained terrain and entered the coalition government, they could pressure larger parties to pay attention to local and marginalized issues. On the other, Mphumi indicated that previous coalition governments had resulted in failures due to competition of resources between parties. This then led to the next point of discussion, since Mphumi indicated that politics was about power and control of resources, while Keagen preferred the idea that it was rather about the distribution of resources, and that it was partisan divisions which made this distribution unequal and ineffective. Nonetheless, a common point was made that greater participation of the citizenry and civil society in politics would diminish the power of political parties and prioritize the wellbeing of the community. For this to be achieved, it was essential that voters, particularly the youth, take a more active stance in politics and pressure to make change possible, starting with the upcoming elections on the 1st of November 2021.
In addition, Dorian made an important point that often the lack of power from the citizenry came from a lack of knowledge and information, and that coalitions and independent candidates could encourage citizens to be more politically conscientious.
In response to some speakers’ encouragement of the youth to spearhead change through greater involvement in local politics, many participants pointed out that the youths are trying to involve themselves more, but many times face great obstacles before their voices can be heard. Amongst these obstacles are the red tape imposed by bureaucracy and corruption, the fact that politics is based along ethnic lines, blocking potential for positive discussion, and that often young people are swallowed up by the logic of the system and an education system that has been neglected for too long.
- Currently, the system is flawed due to politicians following party interests rather than the wellbeing of citizens.
- Creating constituencies would give greater power to voters and diminish that of political parties since it creates a direct relationship between voters and representatives.
- With political representatives accountable to the people and other institutions, the distribution of resources will be more effective.
- For change to occur it is essential that voters, particularly young voters, and civil society take an active stance in politics, but political parties and institutions must also provide greater avenues for participation.