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Faith in IEC and political system is down – research shows

People are resigned to a belief that their circumstances will not be changed through voting.

Voter turnout is down because people are more and more distrusting of political parties and believe their votes have no power to effect change in South Africa.

IEC vice-chairperson Janet Love welcomes everyone to the seminar. Photo: Nicholas Zaal

This is tied to the growing cost of living, unemployment, corruption, crime and political disillusionment.

All this was revealed in democracy research surveys conducted by Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), the Afrobarometer and Citizen Surveys, discussed by experts in Sandton on September 21.

Guests listen as the results of the research is unpacked. Photo: Nicholas Zaal

The conference hall was jam-packed with political activists, political officials, political scientists, media and leaders of community groups, who listened to panellists unpack mountains of data collected over the past decades.

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Experts focussed on the HSRC research specifically, which looked at views of democracy specifically. It was found that the IEC is still the second-most trusted public institution, with the courts being first. Though trust in all public institutions is decreasing.

Approximately 92% of the voting public consider that the electoral processes were free and fair, and 97% of South Africans have expressed satisfaction with the secrecy of their vote.

Dr Ben Roberts of the council of Human Sciences Research Council goes through the research that was conducted. Photo: Nicholas Zaal

Dr Ben Roberts of the HSRC and Jan Hofmeyr of Afrobarometer and the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation divulged that the main reason people do not vote is because people do not think their vote will make a difference.

The sense of duty people feel to vote has decreased from 86% in 2004 to 62% in 2021.

Programme director Cathy Mohlahlana speaks to the researchers. Photo: Nicholas Zaal

A surprising 53% of people claim people are receiving gifts or cash to vote for a particular party, and 46% of people believe the rich are buying elections.

Reza Omar of Citizen Surveys discussed some of the socio-economic reasons why this is, pointing to how wealth is still hugely divided.

In their presentations and the question-and-answer session that followed, the three researchers explained that rather than having political disinterest, there is a growing sense of fatalism. People are resigned to a belief that their circumstances will not be changed through voting.

Dr Aissa Halidou from Niger asks a question at the seminar. Photo: Nicholas Zaal

“A lot of South Africans believe protesting can be more effective than the act of voting to bring their message across,” Omar said.

The education system must be held accountable for this, they said, as young people come of voting age not knowing much about democracy, and believing their voice has no power.

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The answer to the disillusionment in democracy can also be rectified through better training of IEC officials to ensure no issues arise at voting stations on election day.

Community groups and the media should also do more to show the public how voting does effect change, and those in power are eventually held to account.

IEC commissioner Dr Nomsa Masuku poses a question to the researchers. Photo: Nicholas Zaal

The role of social media in perpetuating the disillusionment in democracy should also be looked at, they said.

A panel featuring four distinguished guests later spoke, including professor of political science at UJ, Mcebisi Ndletyana, gender and governance associate at Gender Links, Susan Tolmay, director of programmes at AUWAL Socio-Economic Research Institute ASRI, Ebrahim Fakir, and professor of political science at Stellenbosch University, Dr Collete Schulz-Herzenberg.

Professor of political science at UJ, Mcebisi Ndletyana answers questions from the crowd. Photo: Nicholas Zaal

In a press release about the day, Sy Mamabolo, the chief electoral officer said, “The Commission will harness the positive elements arising from these longitudinal surveys whilst working with all the actors in the political system to address the negative perceptions about electoral democracy. Furthermore, identified challenges which are within the remit of the Commission will be factored into the electoral programme ahead of the 2024 elections.”

Cathy Mohlahlana, Jan Hofmeyr of Afrobarometer and the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation and Dr Ben Roberts of the council duscuss the state of democracy in South Africa at the seminar. Photo: Nicholas Zaal

The presentation can be found on the IEC website.

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