‘Silent majority’ storm brewing for South Africa

 ·5 Jun 2024

South Africa has a silent majority in the number of eligible voters who don’t bother to participate in national elections—but if anything, or anyone, can motivate them to take part, they have the potential to significantly shake-up country, for better or worse.

A dwindling proportion of South Africa’s population is heading to the polls to make their mark in the country’s democratic elections, with fewer than 60% of registered voters casting their ballots, and less than 40% of the eligible population participating in the electoral process.

Although there was a record 27.78 million registered voters for the May 29th National and Provincial elections, only 16.29 million voters made their mark.

This represents a 58.6% voter turnout rate – the lowest general election turnout rate in the country’s 30-year democratic history.

Although the 58.6% is higher than the 45.9% turnout seen in the 2021 local government elections (general elections usually attract a larger voter pull than municipal), the 2024 voter turnout is 30.7 percentage points lower than the peak of 89.3% seen in 1999.

This turnout is against previous Electoral Commission (IEC) predictions, which initially anticipated a turnout of over 70% on election day.

However, many registered voters who turned up to cast their ballots were met with snaking queues, largely (but not solely) due to technical glitches with the voter management devices. Some abandoned these lines and opted not to vote.

Additionally, the IEC acknowledged that its new rule restricting voters to using only the voting station they were registered at led to many people being turned away.

Chief Electoral Officer Sy Mamabola acknowledged these shortcomings, saying that voter education could have played a big role in this, and emphasised that there were “no deliberate delays on the part of the commission.”

However, deputy chief electoral officer, Masego Sheburi, said these above-mentioned issues could not be the only reason for the low turnout.

“It could have been a contributing factor, but as I said, we have to look at the evidence and understand what drove voter behaviour to be the manner it did,” said Sheburi.

The bigger problem

Low participation in South African elections has become an increasingly dominant feature. Analysts attribute it to a wide array of issues, including a lack of trust in politics and parties, disillusionment with the system, and complete dissatisfaction with government performance.

The declining and historically low 2024 voter turnout statistics paint a bleak picture—but even more concerning is South Africa’s overall participation rate in the political system.

“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,” and turned up on voting day, said Matshiqi.

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

With 16.29 million votes cast, that means that South Africa’s 2024 National and Provincial elections had a voter participation rate of ~ 39.4%.

This means that non-voters, and those who didn’t register to vote but were eligible to, make up a vast ‘silent majority’ in the country, accounting for 60.6%.

According to Kruthum (formerly Intellidex) managing director, Peter Attard Mantalto, this cohort—which he dubs the “Don’t Vote Party”—has the potential to significantly disrupt the politics of the country, if they could ever be motivated to actually vote.

“It offers a serious risk to the future if such a bloc suddenly turns out to vote—though there is little evidence from polling that they would do so,” he said.

“There is also a potential opportunity for change if a wider realignment of politics occurs and credible and popular leaders emerge who can reach the supporters of the ‘Don’t Vote Party’ and take them under their wing.”

Attard Mantalto said that the low voter turnout and poor registrations reflected a “stunning failure” of South Africa’s political parties to win over voters and to educate the population on the elections.

“All parties require some serious introspection, as does the government and the IEC. This trend cannot continue,” he said.

Read: 2024 South Africa Election: Final national and provincial results and seat allocations

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