/ 3 November 2021

Distrust of politicians the reason for low voter turnout, but voters saw elections as free and fair – HSRC

2021 Local Government Elections
The 2024 elections will celebrate 30 years of democracy in South Africa.

About 80% of people of voting age that are dissatisfied and disillusioned with the country’s political system were the reason for the drastic drop in voter turnout at this year’s local government elections, according to the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC).

The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) projected voter turnout would be 48%. 

Releasing its preliminary findings of the Election Satisfaction Survey, the HSRC found that 96% of the 12 189 voters they surveyed were satisfied with the services rendered by the electoral staff at voting stations, with 3% expressing a neutral position and 1% being dissatisfied. 

Narnia Bohler-Muller, the executive director of the HSRC’s research programme on democracy, governance and service delivery, said the council only interviewed people who voted, conducting their study at 300 voting stations countrywide, which she said was a representative sample covering the country’s demographics. 

She added that other studies the HSRC had conducted, including its pre-election survey, pointed to a lack of trust in the country’s political system and politicians.   

“Some of our other research is pointing to a very disturbing decline in trust in democracy in South Africa and, of course, democracy is not only about voting — it is about public participation. 

“But this [ disillusionment with the political system] is the reality, and this could be one of the reasons why we had a relatively low [voter] turnout,” Bohler-Muller said. 

Her views were echoed by Benjamin Roberts, research director at the HSRC, who said one of the main reasons for planned abstention was not about how the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) would run these elections but rather that “just shy of 80% referred to aspects of disillusionment as the primary motivator for not wanting to turn out”.  

Bohler-Muller said the HSRC had work to do to ascertain the cause of the growing discontent. “The nature of this disillusionment was not probed deeply. So, we will probably have to do more research to determine the nature of disillusionment, although we are very well aware of the fact that people are dissatisfied with service delivery, especially at a local government level. 

Roberts said the HSRC went above international standards by sampling more than 12 000 voters, and their margin of error was below 1% for the study.   

The IEC performed well in the HSRC’s study, with 89% of voters indicating that they trust or strongly trust the commission, 8% were neutral, 2% were distrusting and 1% were uncertain. 

“Based on the interim assessment of voter interviews collected on election day, the HSRC finds that the voting public is overwhelmingly confident that the 2021 local government elections were both free and fair,” the HSRC found.