Johannesburg – Under a blue tent in a leafy Johannesburg park, members of South Africa’s leading opposition party chat as they wait for would-be voters to stop by and register for next year’s general election.
The Democratic Alliance (DA) is the second most popular party in town, but few do so.
“It’s been quite a slow start,” mutters one of the party activists.
The quiet campaign stand on a sunny Saturday morning in October highlighted the uphill battle parties face to tackle political apathy as they gear up for what is expected to be the most competitive vote in decades.
Polls suggest the ruling African National Congress (ANC) could see its vote drop below 50 percent for the first time since the advent of democracy in 1994.
The party, which has been in government continuously since then, has seen its once-stellar standing mauled by allegations of corruption and mismanagement.
But to dislodge it from power, other parties need to turn disillusionment into votes.
“Most people are losing hope, not just in the ANC but in politics in general,” political analyst Hlengiwe Ndlovu told AFP.
At the last elections in 2019, about one in four eligible voters, some nine million people, did not register to vote.
Even fewer bothered to cast a ballot, with only 49 percent of those of voting age showing up on election day.
Since hitting a high of 84 percent in 1994, voter numbers have progressively shrunk every five years.
Old people and influencers
The ANC has lost about a third of its supporters over the past two decades, analyst Sandile Swana said.
“We expect them to lose more at the next election,” he added.
Party membership alone dropped by more than 30 percent in the last five years, according to an organisational report presented at the party’s conference in December.
To stop the bleeding, the party shaped by Nelson Mandela to spearhead the struggle to end apartheid, has launched a registration campaign.
Stalls have been set up in several districts ahead of a big registration drive next month.
“It’s a crucial issue for us… to garner as much voter registration (as possible),” party spokeswoman Mahlengi Bhengu-Motsiri told AFP.
While the older generation still feels a debt of gratitude towards the former liberation movement, young people who grew up in a democratic South Africa need the most convincing, said Ndlovu.
In 2019, only 15 percent of all eligible voters aged 18 to 19 cast a vote — and only 30 percent of 20-to-29-year-olds, according to a 2020 report by German think tank, the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung.
“The elderly… have a keen understanding of where they come from with this country, and where they are today,” said Bhengu-Motsiri of the ANC, which is looking to restructure its youth wing and use “a lot of new media” to address the issue.
But others are courting young voters too.
The radical leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), South Africa’s third largest party, has actively targeted universities, winning a string of student body votes in recent years.
Led by firebrand politician Julius Malema — who at 42 is 28 years younger than President Cyril Ramaphosa — the party has also enlisted celebrities and influencers, including popular singer Ringo Madlingozi, who also became an EFF MP, and actress and influencer Ntando Duma, to spread its message.
“Over reliance on disillusioned ANC voters is a trap that opposition parties should not fall into,” warned EFF spokesman Sinawo Tambo.
Poor service delivery, a crippling energy crisis, corruption and a buckling economy have left many South Africans upset with their government.
The DA, a liberal party which is currently polling at around 16 percent, launched its registration campaign earlier this month under the motto “Register to rescue SA” (short for South Africa).
“The more disengaged the voter is, the more likely they are to vote for the opposition and… we would be the main beneficiary,” DA deputy campaign manager Ashor Sarupen told AFP.
The party has also announced a “moonshot” pact with several smaller groups that it hopes could be turned into a coalition government after the vote.
But such efforts alone are unlikely to overcome apathy, said Naledi Modise, a politics lecturer at North-West University.
“Voters do not believe in the political efficacy of their vote,” Modise said, adding it was the result “of years of steady decline because of the unmet needs of the majority of South Africans”.
“Once people see their material needs being met, they will likely re-engage in the political process,” she said.
“However, for the 2024 elections this is too late.”
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