Does the increase in the voters’ roll boost participatory democracy?

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South Africa’s Electoral Commission (IEC) has confirmed an increase of 1.2 million names in the voters roll over the November 2023 and February 2024 voter registration weekends.

Although laudable, this is a mere 4.2% increase from the 2021 Local Government Elections (LGE). The current voters’ roll boasts 27.4 million registered names, compared to 26.2 million from three years back.

Could this modest increase indicate a strengthening of participatory democracy?

The answer may only be fully realized when elections are held any time between May and August this year because any increase in the voters’ roll must be accompanied by a meaningful increase in voters who turn up on Election Day.

If anything, the increase in the voters’ roll may suggest that citizens are eager to effect desired changes in government or choose to keep the current government in power.


Registered V by PROVINCE by SABC Digital News

According to Census 2022 data, South Africa’s population is currently 62 million, with approximately 66% or 39.7 million being of voting age (over 18 years of age).

This means that at least 12.4 million eligible voters are not registered to vote in any election in the country.

It is important to note that registration remains open 24-7 online and at IEC offices across the country until President Cyril Ramaphosa announces and publishes the election date via a Government Gazette proclamation. The voters’ roll then closes that same day at midnight.

Three provinces, namely Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, and the Eastern Cape account for 56.5% of all registered voters. Gauteng continues to have the largest voting bloc, with 6.4 million voters, followed by KwaZulu-Natal (5.7 million) and the Eastern Cape (3.4 million). For any serious political contender to win elections, they need to campaign vigorously in these populous provinces.

The voters’ roll also illustrates an important demographic in terms of age. Currently, most registered voters fall into age bands between 20 – 49.


Registered V by AGE by SABC Digital News

Lower turnout in previous elections

In 2019, there were 26.7 million registered voters but only 17.6 million voted, resulting in a 66% voter turnout. This was 7.48% lower than the 73.48% turnout in the 2014 general election. The lower turnout occurred despite a 1.3 million increase in the voter roll from 25.3 million in 2014 to 26.7 million in 2019. The lower voter turnout in previous elections has been attributed to a variety of factors, including voter apathy, a lack of trust in democratic processes to effect change, and electorate dissatisfaction with service delivery.


Does voting make a difference?

Lower turnout may also bring to the forefront the frequently asked question of whether voting actually makes a difference. According to the World Bank’s Poverty and Equity Report on South Africa (April 2020), approximately 55.5% (30.3 million people) live in poverty. Moreover, 13.8 million people (25%) were food insecure. According to the report, South Africa continues to be one of the world’s most unequal countries.

Some of the reasons cited by the World Bank included persistently high inequality, which has increased since 1994. According to the report, high levels of income polarization, defined as a few high-income earners and a small middle class, result in very high levels of chronic poverty. As a result, nearly half of the population (approximately 28 million) relies on social grants for their primary income.

According to Statistics South Africa’s Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS) for the third quarter of 2023, official unemployment stood at 31.9%, with 7.8 million unemployed individuals. When the expanded definition of unemployment is used, the figure rises to 41.2%, or 11.7 million.

The official unemployment rate for youth (ages 15 to 34) is 43.4%. Approximately 3.3 million (32.7%) of the 10.2 million young people aged 15-24 were not in employment, education, or training (NEET), while 6.9 million were employed or in education or


History shows that democracies in danger of losing their freedom have alarmingly low voter turnout rates. In thriving democracies, people vote in large numbers, and the people’s voice takes precedence. Lower voter turnout in elections undermines participatory democracy and increases the likelihood of undemocratic changes in government. More resources are needed to promote participatory democracy and voter education. It remains to be seen whether the 2024 general election will reverse a decline in voter turnout and reflect a current sense of urgency to effect change.

Velemseni Mthiyane is an SABC News Researcher.