/ 30 May 2024

Expected high voter turnout a nod to political parties, says IEC

Voting 5993 Dv
The IEC is expecting a higher voter turnout than the 2019 elections. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)


Long queues at polling stations on Wednesday night appear to have dispelled what the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) called voters’ disillusionment in the country’s political system.

The Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) said on Wednesday that what appeared — anecdotally at least — to be a far higher voter turnout than the 2021 local government elections was a feather in its cap and that of political parties.

Three years ago, a paltry 45.86% of about 26 million registered voters — or just above 12 million people — cast their ballots in the local elections. This was the lowest voter turnout since South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, and the 2021 vote was the first since the 2006 local elections when the turnout was below 50%.

After 2006, turnout at local government elections increased to 57.6% and 58% in 2011 and 2016, respectively, while the 2019 national and provincial elections saw a solid 66% turnout. The highest voter turnout was in the 1999 national elections, at 89.3%.

It became worrying, therefore, when 2021 saw a sharp drop, with the HSRC stating in its election satisfaction survey report for that year’s elections, that voters lacked 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,” Narnia Bohler-Muller, the executive director of the HSRC’s research programme on democracy, governance and service delivery, said at the time.

“But this [ disillusionment with the political system] is the reality, and this could be one of the reasons we had a relatively low [voter] turnout [in 2021].”

In a sharp reversal, the IEC was on Wednesday evening scrambling to ensure that the public was made aware that no one waiting in line to vote should be kept from casting their ballots even when polling stations officially closed at 9pm. 

The commission’s announcement followed the circulation on social media of scores of videos depicting snaking lines as long as 5km in the student area of Hatfield in Tshwane, two hours before voting stations were set to close. 

Responding to a question during Wednesday evening’s media  briefing, IEC chief electoral officer Sy Mamabolo quipped that he deserved a bonus if the voter turnout breached 70%. 

He attributed the apparent higher turnout to a “confluence” of good work by the commission and political parties.

“The commission has done its job insofar as popularising these elections and giving voter education,” Mamabolo said. “But political parties have also worked very hard during the campaign period. They worked very hard to mobilise their supporters; to mobilise all South Africans to participate [in the elections], which is why we have this great turnout.”

Mobilisation by some political parties went into Wednesday night, with ANC secretary general Fikile Mbalula releasing a circular to the organisation’s provincial secretaries and voting district coordinators that the party was speaking to the IEC to ensure no voter was turned away. 

“We have received reports of long and slow-moving queues at many voting stations. All structures must continue mobilising voters and urge voters to remain in the queue until they have voted,” Mbalulu said in the circular. 

Over the weekend, market research company Ipsos said turnout would be “the key variable” in this week’s elections. 

Ipsos said its modelling showed “that a low voter turnout [would] be to the advantage of the ANC — pushing the ruling party closer to achieving 50% of the vote”.

Richard Calland, a visiting adjunct professor at Wits School of Governance and a founding partner at political risk consultancy, The Paternoster Group, wrote for the M&G on Monday that he noted the ANC’s low polling numbers. 

“But, historically, polling in South Africa has tended to understate the ANC’s support, especially when proper turnout modelling is factored in,” he said.

With counting taking shape on Thursday, this should give a clearer picture within seven days — in line with the Electoral Act — of how parties fared.

But results should be out long before then, Mamabolo said at Wednesday’s briefing.

“We [the IEC] have always been able to declare and announce the results well within this [seven-day] period, and [we] will endeavour to do so with these elections,” he promised.