The Real Story of South Africa's National Elections

By Dale T. McKinley · 11 May 2014

A+ A= A-
    Print this page       comments
Picture: Anna-Maria Kalesoski
Picture: Anna-Maria Kalesoski

No sooner had the final results of the recently concluded 2014 national elections been announced than President Zuma gave a predictably self-congratulatory speech lauding the result as “the will of all the people”. The reality however is that the ANC’s victory came from a distinct minority of “the people”. The real ‘winner’, as has been the case since the 2004 elections, was the stay away ‘vote’.

Since South Africa’s first-ever democratic elections in 1994, the hard facts are that there has been a directly proportionate relationship between the overall decline in support for the ANC and the rise of the stay away ‘vote’. A quick look at the relevant percentages/numbers from each election confirms the reality.

1994: Of the 23 063 910 eligible voters, 85,53 percent (19 726 610) voted while the remaining 14,47 percent (3 337 300) stayed away. The ANC received support from 53,01 percent (12 237 655) of the eligible voting population.

1999: Of the 25 411 573 eligible voters, 62,87 percent (15 977 142) voted while the remaining 37,13 percent (9 434 431) stayed away. The ANC received support from 41,72 percent (10 601 330) of the eligible voting population.

2004: Of the 27 994 712 eligible voters, 55,77 percent (15 612 671) voted while the remaining 44,23 percent (12 382 041) stayed away. The ANC received support from 38,87 percent (10 880 917) of the eligible voting population.

2009: Of the 30 224 145 eligible voters, 59,29 percent (17 919 966) voted while the remaining 40,71 percent (12 304 179) stayed away. The ANC received support from 38,55 percent (11 650 748) of the eligible voting population.

2014: Of the 31 434 035 eligible voters, 59,34 percent (18 654 457) voted while the remaining 40,66 percent (12 779 578) stayed away. The ANC received support from 36,39 percent (11 436 921) of the eligible voting population.

It is quite an amazing ‘storyline’ with two key tropes. At the same time that South Africa’s eligible voting population - based on estimates of successive census’s -  has increased by 8,4 million in twenty years of democracy,  the amount of that population which has chosen not to vote has increased by 9,4 million. Simultaneously, electoral support for the ANC, as a percentage of that voting population, has declined precipitously from 53 to 36 percent.  

One of the main reasons why this ‘story’ is most often buried in the margins of our political and electoral conversations and consciousness is that the official version conveniently ignores primarily those citizens (a majority of whom are young people between the ages of 18-20) who have not registered to vote and secondarily, those who have registered but chosen not to vote. It is similar to the politically-inspired and artificially constructed distinction between the ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ unemployment rate which has the effect of erasing millions from the officially recognised ranks of the unemployed.

As a result, the official version of these latest national elections (in many cases, mirrored by the media) is one in which there is a “high voter turnout” and where the ANC victory is presented as indicative of support from the “majority of voters”. And so it is that the almost 13 million who decided not to participate in the 2014 elections (whether registered or not) are effectively airbrushed from the picture, while the 11,5 million who voted for the ANC become “the people”. Stalin would be smiling approvingly.

What does this largely hidden tale tell us about the state of South Africa’s political system and more broadly, of our democracy? Firstly, that a growing portion of the adult (voting age) population, but concentrated amongst the youth, has become alienated from the political system. In societies like South Africa which are framed by a liberal capitalist socio-political order, the mere existence and functioning of representative democratic institutions and processes increasingly mask the decline of meaningful popular democratic participation and control. This, in a context where elections have become the political playground of those with access to capitalist patronage and where electoral choice is largely reduced to different shades of grey.

Since the act of voting in such national elections is itself representative of either a belief in/acceptance of, the existing order or that meaningful change can result from such an act, the counter-act of not voting can be seen as representative of the opposites. In other words, there is no necessary or inherent connection between voting and the deepening of democracy in ways that can make a systemic difference in the lives of those who feel/ experience exclusion and marginalisation. 

This speaks to a reality which those on the ‘other side of the fence’ appear wholly unwilling to face; that for some time now, almost half of South Africans able to vote clearly do not see voting as being in their social, material and political interests. Apathy is simply a convenient and patronising ‘explanation’. It also speaks to the refusal to recognise that the (pre) conditions for meaningful and popular participation in any representational act or process are embedded in changing the structural relations of power, whether grounded in social, economic, political, gender or knowledge relations.

Indeed, the developmental legacy of post-1994 South Africa has been, and continues to be, characterised by the false twinning of a democratic form to the needs of a capitalist ‘market’. This has resulted in a creeping intolerance – fuelled predominately by those in positions of political and economic power and policed by the coercive capacity of the state - of legitimate political/social dissent, which is the lifeblood of any genuine democracy. It has also produced a situation wherein institutionalised practices and forms of representative democracy such as elections – while largely accepted as a legitimate form of democratic expression - make little practical difference in the lives of so many since the key societal (developmental) decisions are taken by those that participate in, and manage, that ‘market’.

In his post-election speech President Zuma stated that the ANC’s electoral victory represents an “overwhelming mandate from our people … and reaffirms that the ANC remains the only true hope for the majority of our people”. Clearly, he and his organisation have not read the whole story.

Dr. McKinley is an independent writer, researcher and lecturer as well as political activist.

Should you wish to republish this SACSIS article, please attribute the author and cite The South African Civil Society Information Service as its source.

All of SACSIS' originally produced articles, videos, podcasts and transcripts are licensed under a Creative Commons license. For more information about our Copyright Policy, please click here.

To receive an email notification when a new SACSIS article is published, please click here.

For regular and timely updates of new SACSIS articles, you can also follow us on Twitter @SACSIS_News and/or become a SACSIS fan on Facebook.

You can find this page online at

A+ A= A-
    Print this page       comments

Leave A Comment

Posts by unregistered readers are moderated. Posts by registered readers are published immediately. Why wait? Register now or log in!


11 May

Non-voters Not Necessarily Alienated

Dr McKinley's argument rests on two assumptions: 1. The stay-away vote has greatly increased. This is not the case. It is hardly surprising that there would be a decrease after the early years when people were excited about our new democracy but since then the percentage has stabilised and even slightly increased since 2009. 2. A stay-away vote could mean anger at the ruling party or alienation from the political system, but it could also mean satisfaction with the status quo. When a democratic election turns out differently from what one had hoped for, the temptation is to claim that the opinions of those who didn't vote should somehow be counted or that those who did vote are somehow deluded or misled. We do have a democracy, thankfully, so no Stalin would not be smiling. The people have spoken and those who do not like what they said now have for years to persuade them to say something different next time.

Respond to this comment

11 May

Yes but No

Martin, your contribution here is important. Yes, its entirely possibly that not voting could mean satisfaction with the status quo.

However, there are a few reasons why this doesn't seem to be the case.

1) If you ask people - particularly township youth - who aren't voting why they are not voting, one usually hears the the following answers:
* There is no point in voting because it doesn't change anything.
* There is no one to vote for.
* They're all corrupt.

2) If the people who aren't voting are content with the status quo, then that would mean that there are no or few protests. However, as you probably know, SA has more protests than anywhere else in the world. And it is precisely this township youth demographic, which is protesting the fact that they are not happy with the status quo. This also dispels the argument that the poor black youth are apathetic or too lazy to vote. If that was the case, then they wouldn't be protesting, which requires a hell of a lot more effort.

That said, there should be more surveys into the reasons why 40% of voters did not vote.

11 May


Nice to see some rational analysis out there. Very good.

What is called apathy is in fact a realistic grasp of the limited nature of electoral politics.

Respond to this comment

Barry Saaman
11 May

Young Democracy

>"This has resulted in a creeping intolerance...of legitimate political/social dissent, which is the lifeblood of any genuine democracy."

Well said - if the elitist political and economic 'establishments' are allowed to keep on abusing the "coercive capacity of the state", as you observed, South Africa must expect many more Bambata, Sharpville and Lonmin massacres.

>"It has also produced a situation wherein institutionalized practices and forms of representative democracy such as elections - while largely accepted as a legitimate form of democratic expression - make little practical difference in the lives of so many since the key societal (developmental) decisions are taken by those that participate in, and manage, that 'market'."

'Democracy' has clearly made very little or no impact on the lives of millions. That is not a good story.

I think you are correct that this realty can be quantified by among others the shocking growing trend of registered voters that do not participate in elections from the
1994 - 14,47% or 3 337 300 registered non-voters,
1999 - 7,13% or 9 434 431 registered non-voters,
2004 - 44,23% or 12 382 041 registered non-voters,
2009 - 40, 71% or 12 304 179 registered non-voters,
to 40, 66% or 12 779 578 registered non-voters in the 2014 elections.

The millions of eligible South Africans that did not even bother to register as voters are even more concerning.

I wonder what the plan of the Independent Electoral Commission is to arrest this unacceptable situation and if Parliament has decided on annual targets that this revered Commission must met to merit their salaries. Hard work by the responsible constitutional institutions can make a difference.

In my opinion it will therefore be a mistake to blame everything - not that you in fact do it - on detached elitists and/or market fundamentalists.

Their insistence on higher profits, lower wages and less statutory protection for workers before they invest in the South African economy is however short-sighted and counterproductive. It boils down to further redistribution of wealth from the poor and/or unemployed persons to already wealthy individuals. That is a sick idea and I wonder why they think more or increasing inequality is a viable option.

Respond to this comment

Disappointed, but still engaged...
12 May

If You Will Permit Me: A Short Story on the Matter of Not Voting

I am no politician and have voted in all SA elections since 1994. The opportunity to vote was hard fought for over the course of many decades by many sectors of society. Many citizens paid for our right to vote with their very lives. Regardless of the government's poor performance, corrupt behavior, and failure to provide essential services to the public, the decision to boycott the election reflects poorly on us as a nation. The fact that it is espoused by so many as a form of protest is short sighted to say the least. Voting is the civic duty of every citizen and should be exercised whenever elections are called.

Here begins my story...

All citizens of the Rainbow Nation are at sea in a boat - make that a rowing boat. All citizens who are eligible to vote are in possession of an oar or a paddle. Everyone wants to move the boat to a destination of their choice. This includes citizens who have an oar and those who do not. Some citizens want to move the boat quickly whilst others want to slow it down for reasons of their own. Others still, want to keep the boat at sea because they are enjoying the climate and the party.

All the rowing is not in unison. In fact, some gains in speed and direction by serious rowers who know where they want to go are negated by others rowing at a different speed, or, by those steering a different course toward a different destination.

To make matters worse, some citizens, despite encouragement from their leaders, insist on dragging their oars through the water causing the boat to move somewhat aimlessly through the water, and at times nearly capsize altogether.

Many citizens are disappointed that the boat isn't moving toward their destination of choice and furthermore, they are tired of the bickering about which port to row toward . They are so disgusted with the party-goers on board and so distraught that the stronger rowers are squabbling about the destination we should be headed toward, that they decide to pull their oars out of the water.

In so doing, they allow the reckless rowers, who want to get to the dangerous destinations at the rocky shore, to progress.

Pulling their oars from the water (I will henceforth refer to them as the "paddle pullers") withdraws valuable and much needed support from other serious rowers who want to navigate the boat safely into port with all citizens in good health.

As a result of the paddle pullers' shortsightedness, the party-goers are free to open the next barrel of beer and burn valuable fuel while steering the boat aimlessly in dangerous ocean currents.

Even worse, the paddle pullers have started spreading their gospel to the "already disaffected", the "easily swayed" and the "poorly informed" who have managed to convince a few of the "apathetic" to "join their cause".

The paddle pullers now commence patting themselves on the back because they believe that their act of disengaging from the process artfully demonstrates that it is possible to positively affect the outcome of any process by not participating in any action.

They do not see the damage their chosen course of action has resulted in and, even worse, they proclaim their choice of deliberate inaction to be a successful act of defiance.

Meanwhile, the reckless rowers take the boat closer to the rocky shore, the party-goers devise new ways to party at the expense of honest citizens, the disaffected become more disaffected and encourage others to join their cause, the apathetic take their level of commitment to even greater heights.

The boat has a leaky bottom, but it can get safely to shore. In fact, if all citizens take turns rowing, if we row together in unison instead of against each other, if we row harder when the ocean currents are rough and extra momentum is needed to propel the boat safely to shore, we can overcome the rough seas, show the reckless rowers that there are better ways to steer a safe course and the maroon the party-goers on a desert island.

Let's hope that next time we are at sea, the paddle pullers who have contributed to the dangerous course the boat is currently on, do not decide to throw their oars and paddles overboard in a last act of self-righteous and misguided defiance. In doing so, they would surrender their hard earned right to row in the boat through the storm and influence the return to a safe port of call. We would literally be at sea, in a boat, with no paddles.

Barry Saayman
12 May

One-man-one-vote mantra is obfuscation

>"The opportunity to vote was hard fought for over the course of many decades by many sectors of society. Many citizens paid for our right to vote with their very lives."

This is how Westerners view South African reality. They have been deceived by the ANC and/or their own governments because they want to be deceived.

Many individuals perished in a concerted effort to rid them from white colonialists and settlers - it is inaccurate (read propaganda) that 'democracy' was the aim of the liberation struggle - it was and is a struggle to 'liberate' the first nations in Africa from alien white domination and nothing else.

The objectives of the ongoing National Democratic Revolution exclude multiparty constitutional democracy, human rights or the rule of law - a so-called national democratic society can take many forms.

The 'liberation movement' did not 'struggle' to vote. That is in my view why millions don't vote.

With the advent of 'democracy' the SACP/ANC restored the monarchy in 10 kingdoms also called Bantustans - See Sections 143 (1) (b), 211, 212, 219 (a) and 235 of the Constitution, 1996.

The 'liberation movement' did not 'struggle' to vote. In Africa it is not culture to vote for leaders. That is in my view why millions don't vote. I stand to be corrected.

12 May

Very Interesting Indeed

This really shows that there is a large number of people (mostly young) who are simply not catered to by the existing parties.

Respond to this comment

Barry Saayman
12 May


>>"What does this largely hidden tale tell us about the state of South Africa’s political system and more broadly, of our democracy? Firstly, that a growing portion of the adult (voting age) population, but concentrated amongst the youth, has become alienated from the political system."

I think millions of South Africans are alienated from the 'democratic political system' because many were never introduced into the democratic political system whilst others cannot see the relevance of voting for leaders that they do not know and a parliament that have practically no or little jurisdiction over them whilst Kings and other traditional leaders rule supreme in many areas.

Something is very wrong in SA.

Respond to this comment

Barry Saayman
12 May

Identifying/addressing obstacles - deepen democracy

>>"(And, not to put too fine a point on it, the ANC won nationally with a mandate that was effectively well under 50% of the eligible electorate.)"

"Historically, this movement to the cities, worldwide, has brought people previously rooted in that rural mindset and an acceptance of traditional hierarchies (that local gentry, the yeoman farmers, a peasantry, and then tenant farmers, serfs or even slaves) and into an environment where those older verities no longer carried nearly as much weight with urban dwellers. The cities, in all their chaos, energy and the sweeping away of the established order, also offered tantalising possibilities for the immigrants to those streets and slums. But beyond the economic or personal circumstances, such urban people have also broken increasingly free from their old political verities as well.

Consider just for a moment the life of South Africa’s own Nelson Mandela. Identified from birth to be the counsellor of a traditional ruler in a rural landscape and thus educated accordingly, at the first feasible moment, he flees the Eastern Cape and heads for Johannesburg where he recreates himself as a “new man”. He makes his own path economically, picks his own spouses rather than the ones that have been identified for him, and he even shucks off the older traditional political allegiances of his class and finds new ones. And even there, once he has a new political home, he sets out a new path – the robust, rebellious ANC Youth League - well beyond the previous dimensions of that genteel, elite structure, the older African National Congress.

Now, consider how that has happened throughout history. New political movements, drawing in now-urban people, freed from their rural lives, have repeatedly risen up in society after society to set out new political paths for themselves........broadly described, rather than in the deeply rural areas governed by those traditional chief and commoner clientele and patronage relationships." J Brooks Spector

13 May

The Silent Citizens

This is a refreshing and striking perspective, and it implies a great deal of further issues to be explored. Is there a research institute that can work out the patterns of abstention or disinterest according to voting districts, as well as over time? There is obviously a potent counter-narrative lying within that - agency or non-agency, place, and time.

Second, what vexes me is the self-congratulation by the system every five years, rather like the heavy-handed rhythmic applause of a bunch of claqueurs. In an active democracy governments come and go with less predictable staid pro-forma patterns. Active citizens, in the face of events such as the Marikana atrocity, demand the resignation of a government, which then acknowledges the real crisis and calls a snap election. That ought to have happened, for instance, when the ANC wanted to get rid of Mbeki - perhaps. Instead, the nation is run by a clique at the head of the ANC, and all other public institutions merely reinforce the narrative that is set out by that clique.

We need ground-up democracy, not top-down. So much for the old struggle slogan of 'grassroots'. And, in fact, where the grass does grow long, those grassy lands are under 'tribal' authorities who are happily entrenched in their power courtesy of the ANC, and it's quite likely that many of the subjects of those kings and indunas have no interest whatsoever in voting, no faith that their individual agency will make a jot of difference.

We need another high-profile think tank such as IDASA. The media coverage of this 2014 election was infantile, SABC TV 1,2 and 3 had next to no real analysis or live presence at the IEC results centre. We've been had, and all we can hope for is better managerialism, because that is what it all boils down to (at best).

Respond to this comment

14 May

International Comparison

Are there any statistics from comparable (and perhaps not so comparable) countries? I.e. Does South Africa's trend in the 'stay away' vote follow international trends? What proportion of eligible voters stay away in the US or UK?

Respond to this comment

Rory Verified user
16 May


The huge numbers of people who did not vote, for whatever reason, is what should concern us all. Our external face is that, we are a democracy but the inside reality is that this apparent democracy is clearly not working for a significant and growing proportion of the population. Democracy is about improving the lives of all our citizens so we should be concerned, nay we should see it as a national crisis, that so many of our people have chosen to dis-connect themselves from the electoral process. Democracy as it is currently constituted in our country is clearly failing and anyone who cannot see this stark reality is part of the problem. They, by their blindness, or denialism, are the reason why it is failing. Democracy when it is working properly works to find collective solutions to citizens problems. We clearly have a massive problem here but their is a huge segment of the population [the registered voters and the political parties that they support?] who are in denial. Ignoring a problem does do not cause it to go away.

Respond to this comment

20 May


The ANC leaders had two prime objectives: to get rich and to replace whites with blacks.

What they fail to understand, and care not a jot about anyway, is that solutions that will result in the greatest gains for the majority are those that use the most able people.

They chose the converse...and radically underperformed. Hardly surprising that the masses, largely with little understanding of economics or how successful societies function, lost interest, retired confused.