OPINIONISTA: The current political system and parties have failed us — we must change from the bottom up

South Africans like myself are becoming more and more disillusioned by political parties and the current political systems that govern them. Time and time again, ordinary South Africans have tried to send strong messages bemoaning crime and diminished safety, poor service delivery, rampant corruption that has bled the public coffers dry, and poor quality of life — all of which have continually landed on deaf ears as the rigidity and the lack of responsiveness of the current political system persists.

Dissatisfaction with the status quo has led many to take to the streets in protest as political systems built to serve, protect, and uplift fail them consistently. Aside from protest, one of the more telling ways in which South Africans have shown a gradual rejection of the current political system and political parties alike is at the polls.

According to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), of the over 40 million eligible voters in South Africa, a total of 26.2 million South Africans had registered ahead of last year’s Local Government Elections (LGE). This means that more than 13 million eligible South Africans had not registered to vote, accounting for around a third of the eligible voter population — this is cause for serious concern as more people turn their back on traditional politics and the political establishment and are left despondent, while first-time voters see no value in being politically engaged in electoral politics.

In a 2020 paper by Collette Schulz-Herzenberg, The South African non-voter: An analysis, she found that, “On 8 May 2019, South Africans voted in their sixth democratic national and provincial elections. A record 26.7 million eligible South Africans registered to vote in the election. The registered population represented 74.6% of the total voting-age population of over 35.8 million. Over 17.6 million voters participated on election day. Yet electoral participation decreased quite dramatically, accelerating the steady decline in voter turnout across South Africa’s previous democratic elections.”

Schulz-Herzenberg also noted that “the decline in the turnout rate of 8% among registered voters from 73% in 2014 to 66% in the 2019 elections was the sharpest since the 2004 elections. It meant that, for the first time since the founding democratic elections in 1994, less than half (49%) of all eligible South Africans cast a vote in 2019. South Africa’s participation levels are now on par with other low turnout countries in terms of its eligible participation.”

In a 2018 study by the Pew Research Centre, it was found that most South Africans (two thirds) were dissatisfied with the state of their democracy, which was in contrast with the 67% who were satisfied back in 2013.

This decline and overall sentiments are not only an indictment of the ANC as the ruling party, but of all political parties who are currently players in the existing political system. All have failed to respond decisively to the issues faced by all South Africans, and to bring us all together, instead of sowing division for short-sighted political gain.

The current political system and existing political parties are not focused on making South Africa the equitable, just country it needs to be — they are simply not able to foster collaboration and innovation and organise to make a difference. It (and they) are failing to deal with its socioeconomic problems and enabling South Africans to advance and access opportunities.

I believe that communities have been at the forefront of finding solutions to the many issues that they face, led by the most innovative and determined changemakers among them — they already have the answers to some of South Africa’s burning socioeconomic questions. If community leaders who have a proven track record of uplifting their communities and bringing about lasting change are brought into politics and are empowered to get the things done that communities need — maybe then citizens would be more engaged with the political process.

At the moment, political parties are not invested in empowering community leaders which is why we must all be seized with thoughts of how to change the way our democratic participation system works. As it stands the law stipulates that an entity must be registered to take part in the elections. The law is less prescriptive as to how that entity chooses to organise and convene communities, however.

When political parties were banned during apartheid, there was still mobilisation and organising at a community level. The key to a changing political discourse will be to go back to that culture and build up. DM


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