Beneath a blue tent in a lush Johannesburg park, members of South Africa’s top opposition party are gathered, hoping to attract potential voters for next year’s big election.
The Democratic Alliance (DA), the second most popular party around, isn’t having an easy time. It’s been slow, says one of the party’s activists.
This peaceful campaign scene on a sunny October Saturday morning highlights the challenging road political parties face as they prepare for what’s expected to be the most fiercely contested election in decades.
Surveys indicate that the ruling African National Congress (ANC) might see its voter support drop below 50 percent for the first time since South Africa embraced democracy in 1994.
The party, which has held power continuously since then, has had its once-gleaming reputation tarnished by accusations of corruption and mismanagement.
But to oust the ANC from power, other parties need to turn people’s disillusionment into actual votes.
Most people are losing hope, not just in the ANC but in politics in general, says political analyst Hlengiwe Ndlovu.
During the last election in 2019, roughly one in four eligible voters, about nine million people, didn’t even register to vote. Even fewer showed up on election day, with just 49 percent of eligible voters casting their ballots.
Since its peak of 84 percent in 1994, voter turnout has steadily declined every five years.
The ANC has lost about a third of its supporters over the past two decades, says analyst Sandile Swana. We expect them to lose more at the next election.
To halt the decline, the party established a voter registration campaign, setting up registration stalls in various districts ahead of a major drive next month.
It’s a critical issue for us… to get as many voters registered as possible, says party spokeswoman Mahlengi Bhengu-Motsiri.
While older generations still feel gratitude towards the former liberation movement, younger South Africans who grew up in a democratic South Africa need more convincing, according to Ndlovu.
In 2019, only 15 percent of eligible voters aged 18 to 19 voted, and only 30 percent of those aged 20 to 29 cast their ballots, according to a 2020 report by the German think tank, the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung.
The elderly… have a deep understanding of their country’s history and where they stand today, Bhengu-Motsiri explains, as the ANC looks to revamp its youth wing and use a lot of new media to address the issue.
But other parties are also courting young voters. The radical leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), South Africa’s third-largest party, has actively targeted universities and gained votes in student body elections.
Led by the fiery politician Julius Malema, who is 28 years younger than President Cyril Ramaphosa, the EFF has enlisted celebrities and influencers like singer Ringo Madlingozi and actress Ntando Duma to spread its message.
Relying solely on disillusioned ANC voters is a trap that opposition parties should avoid, warns EFF spokesman Sinawo Tambo.
Poor service delivery, a crippling energy crisis, corruption, and a struggling economy have left many South Africans frustrated with their government.
The DA, a liberal party currently polling at around 16 percent, recently launched its registration campaign under the slogan Register to rescue SA (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, says DA deputy campaign manager Ashor Sarupen.
The party has also announced a moonshot pact with several smaller groups, hoping to form a coalition government after the election.
However, these efforts alone are unlikely to overcome voter apathy, says Naledi Modise, a politics lecturer at North-West University.
Voters don’t believe their vote can make a difference, Modise explains. This sentiment results from years of unmet needs for the majority of South Africans.
For the 2024 elections, it’s too late, she concludes.