The number that can make or break elections

 ·28 May 2024

South Africa’s seventh democratic elections took place on the 29th of May 2024, with pundits expecting it to be the most fiercely contested in thirty years.

While there are a record-breaking number of South Africans registered to vote in 2024, experts say that the actual voter turnout and participation rate (which the country has seen a consistent decrease of since 1999) will have a large impact on the eventual outcomes of the elections.

The impact of voter turnout

While the elections are predicted to be relatively hotly contested, specifically in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, this is dependent on what the voter turnout will be.

“Turnout will probably be the key variable in the election on 29 May 2024,” said polling firm Ipsos.

“Modelling shows that a low voter turnout will be to the advantage of the ANC – pushing the ruling party closer to achieving 50% of the vote,” said Ipsos.

This has been reflected in multiple polling scenarios, including that from Ipsos, the Social Research Foundation and the Brenthurst Foundation, which sees higher support for the ANC the lower the turnout is.

Registered voters for 2024

Data from the Electoral Commission (IEC) shows that there are 27.67 million people registered to make their mark at one of the 23,292 voting stations – the majority of which come from the populous provinces of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.

South Africa’s declining voter turnout trend

While the voter roll has continued to grow across elections, there has been an evident decline in turnout since 1999, which dropped from 89.3% in that year to just over 66% in 2019. The most recent local government elections in 2021 produced a meagre 45.9% voter turnout. 

General elections voter turnout by Seth Thorne

This is reflected when breaking down provincial statistics, with all nine provinces experiencing a voter decline since 1999.

“It is probably unrealistic to expect such a high voter turnout [in 2024], due to the current sentiment among voters,” said Ipsos.

Participation rate – the country’s bigger issue

Low participation in South African elections, particularly among young voters, has become an increasingly dominant feature. Many attribute it to a lack of trust in politics and dissatisfaction with government performance.

“What should really perturb us is the participation rate – a figure that tells an even more disturbing story than the low voter turnout,” said political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi.

“While the voter turnout is the percentage of registered voters who turn up on voting day, the participation rate is the percentage of all South Africans who are eligible to vote who did turn up on the day,” said Matshiqi.

In the 2019 general election, around 18 million South Africans who were eligible to vote stayed away. Of these, around half were registered, and the rest were not. 

Looking at 2024, researcher Gareth van Onselen (using Stats SA data) estimated a 2024 voting age population in South Africa of 41.4 million.

This means that ~13.7 million eligible voters were not registered for the 2024 election, representing an approximate 66.8% registration rate—down from the estimated 74.5% registration rate in 2019 and 80.5% in 2014.

So, even if the country hypothetically sees a “100% voter turnout” in 2024, this would be best depicted as a 66.8% participation rate.

Matshiqi said that the country’s low participation rates reflect citizens’ lack of confidence in elections, and a disconnection between electoral outcomes and lived realities.

Of this, a large portion of non-participants in the polls are, and have been, young people.

Of the 13.7 million non-registered eligible voters for 2024, about half of them are under the age of 29.

According to Statistics South Africa’s 2018 population estimates, there were approximately 11.7 million eligible voters in the 18 – 29 age group for the 2019 elections (around one-third of the electorate).

Of the 11.7 million 18 – 29 year olds, only 5.6 million registered to vote. Of that 5.6 million, voter turnout for the age group was a meagre 46%.

“The significant decline in youth voter registration points to low levels of trust in politics; the social, political and economic inequality in the country and the undermining of good governance,” said think-tank Rivonia Circle.

According to a survey study by the Human Science Research Council (HSRC), South Africa’s youth, and many other non-voters are largely not apathetic but rather consciously stay away from the polls.

This is seen to be due to their dissatisfaction with government performance, choice of political parties and democracy in general, according to the research.

The study found that many young people boycott elections due to their belief that their individual vote does not make a difference, the lack of trust in politicians who are perceived as uncaring, and poor socio-economic conditions.

Read: South Africa election day 2024 – this is what the big polls say

Show comments
Subscribe to our daily newsletter