Municipal elections are taking place in South Africa in 2016. It may seem a bit premature to start talking about voting again with the memories of the 2014 national elections still fresh in our memories, but the battle for services at local government demands that we start to focus our attention on these elections as early as possible. The biggest problem with local elections is the lack of trust and confidence by citizens in local structures. Political parties should be seriously considering the questions of ‘why would citizens vote in municipal elections if they don’t have confidence in local government, and what can we do to change this?’
A recent survey conducted by the Institute of Race Relations shows that while 54% of those surveyed believed the national government performed well in 2012 (not a particularly encouraging percentage of the population), that only 49% had confidence in local government. That means that more than half of South Africans do not have confidence in the structures which govern their lives at local level. The research conducted by the Mellon Media & Citizenship project showed similar trends in their survey of young people in the country. The baseline study on young people measured their trust in local, provincial and national government and found that local government fared the worst of the three. “Only 34.4% of respondents say they trust local government a great deal or quite a lot. Close to four out of ten (38.3%) of respondents say they trust provincial government quite a lot or a great deal, and 40.9% of respondents say they trust national government a great deal or quite a lot” (pg58).
If citizens do not have confidence in and do not trust local government, what can they do during election time to change that? There is probably a long list of things that citizens can do, but I came up with a short list of three which are directly related to voting: 1. Vote for a party other than the one that is currently holding the municipality. The problems with this are numerous, including the fact that often people cannot relate to any party other than the ANC, they may be wary of voting for a party that has no history of success in their area, and they may be wary of voting for another party that may prove even less efficient than that which currently holds the municipality (better the devil you know…). 2. Abstain from voting at all. Again, this comes with its own caveat including the fact that this does mean you have one less avenue for engagement at the formal level. 3. Vote for the same party that is currently running your municipality, but this time plan to hold the party and the officials accountable once they are in power. This may seem the most logical and rational, but politics is hardly either of these things, and often citizens feel like they have very few avenues for engaging with public officials once they are in office – so how can they hold them accountable? It seems our formal political structures leave very few options for citizens to feel truly empowered, and provide very few avenues for changing levels of trust and confidence.
If citizens do not have confidence in and do not trust local government, then levels of voting during municipal elections are predicted to remain low. I would suggest this will be particularly true for young people. During the national elections, only 31% of people between 18 and 19 years of age registered to vote. In a paper called ‘South African Youth: Politically apathetic?’, Potgieter and Lutz suggest three strategies for getting young people more interested in voting as a formal means of political engagement. 1. Dealing with ‘bread and butter’ constraints. “Effectively addressing socio-economic constraints (such as unemployment and health care) might impact on youth participation in formal political activities” (pg24). The problem with this is that these are the very constraints that citizens are struggling to get, a lack of these is the very reason that confidence in government is so low, so what are the chances that this will change? So called ‘bread and butter’ constraints are what is hampering local government, these are not going to change unless citizens have an avenue for holding officials accountable and voting is not an option because they do not have confidence in those who will be voted into power. 2. Addressing voter education. I agree that many citizens are politically illiterate, but this has less to do with ‘voter education’ and more to do with an understanding of citizenship and the rights and responsibilities of citizens (of which voting is just one). 3. Mandatory voting. I would strongly disagree with this suggestion because citizens already feel immense pressure to vote for historical, cultural and social reasons, most of which have little to do with democratic values and active citizenship. Making voting mandatory will simply lessen the value of the vote rather than make it a more powerful means to engage politically which is what we need.
I think the problem is not with the citizens, particularly young citizens. The problem starts with a lack of understanding of what citizenship means to young people, not how young people don’t fit into our conceptualization of citizenship. If young people have a lack of trust in government and are not voting as a result, the solution is not to try entice them to vote, but to give them alternative means through which they can engage politically, alternative avenues for making them active citizens, and more engaged ways of holding public officials to account. I remember the IEC introduced an advert for the 2014 elections which saw a number of cool celebrities telling us why they are voting and why we, as cool citizens of a cool country, should vote too. What I’d like to see for the local government elections is an advert where ordinary young people tell us why they don’t see voting as an option, but can help us understand other ways of engaging with local government, ways that they use to better their communities, ways which hold officials accountable, and can help other citizens gain confidence in local government.