This piece was written by Keamogetswe Seipato and Nthabiseng Lerotholi and is an analysis of political party manifestos in relation to popular demands. My Vote Counts will launch its party manifesto analysis in April 2024…

We have heard all sorts of public statements and murmurs in different circles about how the 2024 elections are potentially a transformative moment for democracy in South Africa. New kids on the block are calling it “our 1994”. One wonders who forms part of the “our”, because the excitement and hope that came with the right to vote and the overall atmosphere of change that came with the 1994 moment, as many of us are told, does not exist today.  

South Africans today, are dealing with loadshedding, high levels of unemployment, crime, and the breakdown of service delivery because of the chaos in many municipalities. Different forms of gender-based violence are leaving women, children, and queer folks in constant fear and the vast majority of South Africa is being squeezed almost to the pulp by poverty and a looming cost of living crisis. Another indicator that the moment is different, and it is a moment that does not spark any hope in the imagination of many South Africans, is the continued decline in voter turnout numbers.  

Since 1999, there has also been a steady decline in voter turnout – meaning that the number of people who register to vote and the number of people who do go and vote on voting day has been slowly diminishing. For instance, in 1999 we saw an 89 percent voter turnout and in 2019 we saw a 66 percent turnout. In addition, the decline in the trust of the government, the president, and how less than a quarter of South Africans do not trust the ruling party or opposition parties are other indicators that the moment is different. It is a moment that does not spark any hope in the imagination of many South Africans.  

As South Africans prepare themselves for the 2024 general elections, where for the first time in our democracy independent candidates are permitted to run for office, thanks to the Electoral Amendment Act. Which has also given South Africans over 100 possible political parties to choose from come election day. The large pool of parties and candidates that people can vote for might pose challenges when it comes to engaging with manifestos that all political parties should be sharing with the public during their campaigning. The possibilities of national and provincial coalition governments are far more pronounced and the rise of new political parties with serious bankroll and influential figures namely Rise Mzansi and Umkhonto weSizwe Party backed by former president Jacob Zuma, might shift the needle from being spoilt for choice to being inundated, especially when it comes to making a political choice.  

Considering this backdrop and that we are now in manifesto season, what should the electorate do? South Africans are caught in a tricky situation. Outside of the big populist statements and promises made every election year, the material conditions of many have not changed and many South Africans are starting to question the impact that voting has on bringing in change.  

The current closed party list system creates huge gaps between people and their representatives – voters put a political party into power at provincial and national level instead of directly electing public officials. This gap between people and their representatives may also be contributing to the declining voter turnout and a palpable disillusionment with traditional political narratives. My Vote Counts views the closed party list system, as a system that enables public officials to be beholden to their party and not the electorate. The manifesto of Rise Mzansi, one of the fastest growing political parties contesting the 2024 elections, prioritizes political reform, particularly calling for a constituency-based electoral system to bolster the citizen-member of parliament link.  

In the absence of an electoral system that facilitates direct accountability from representatives to the voters and a political alternative that truly encapsulates the demands and hopes of the people, what should the electorate do? The answers will not come a few months before the elections, but something must change. For starters, we need to change how we see the vote – not as just a right enjoyed by all under a democracy, not only as a mechanism to change who governs, not only as a means to change or redistribute power but also and most importantly, as a tool to center the demands of people in the elections. How can the vast majority of South Africans get the basics like housing, water, roads, land, electricity, free education, and the right to work? How can social movements like Equal Education get the demands made by their members?  

The next step in what can be taken is once the vote has been reimagined and we see it as a tool for engagement – engaging with players in politics – political parties is crucial. Engagement here means critically reading and listening to what they say they will do when they can govern, and here comes manifestos. Manifestos are political party declarations of their intentions, promises, policies, ideas, or proposals of what they will do when they are in power. A manifesto as a campaign strategy is used to rally as many people as possible by addressing public discourse while remaining committed to a party’s position. The idea is to convince voters that a particular party is the ideal government by presenting policies, goals and programs which would alleviate socio-economic conditions such as unemployment, inequality, crime in addition to bolstering pre-existing state institutions and processes to improve service delivery.  

Professor Dr Omphemetse S Sibanda argues it is the responsibility of the voters to ascertain the feasibility and capability of a political party to address popular discourse. Based on what Professor Dr. Sibanda said, some of the questions we can ask ourselves are: what are political parties saying about the just transition and, what are they going to do about the cost of living? How will they build hospitals and ensure we have water and electricity? Where are the jobs? What is going to happen to social grants?  

What contributes to 2024 being a potentially different political moment, is that the complete dominance that the ruling party has enjoyed for over 30 years, is now in question. The uncontested space that the ANC occupies as a cultural institution in South Africa is starting to dwindle because South Africa is tired of eating rhetoric, opening the taps of loyalty, or turning on the lights of Nelson Mandela’s legacy. It is becoming clear that the ANC might not enjoy the majority that it has always enjoyed, and this means that they could have to enter coalitions with other political parties. Herein comes the power of the manifesto as a social contract and a tool in the democratic toolbox of the electorate. As it stands manifestos are neither binding nor mandatory but in a political landscape where political parties are going to try to go above and beyond to receive votes, voters can use manifestos to identify what is being proposed, what aligns with their demands and potentially who to vote for or not to vote for based on what is being proposed. 

As voters, it is our right and responsibility to scrutinize these manifestos critically, to understand the vision each party has for our future, and to weigh their promises against their ability and historical performance in delivering on them. In a country where the same party has dominated the political scene for three decades, yet many of its manifesto commitments remain unfulfilled, the need for accountability is paramount. Engaging with manifestos offers us a tangible way to hold political parties accountable. By understanding their proposed policies and promises, we can set clear expectations and post-elections accountability mechanisms like 100 days (about 3 and a half months) in office campaigns to hold them to the commitments made to the people of South Africa. 

One can then posit that 2024 can be our 1994, if the echoes of past political victories are not the only basis for what kind of South Africa we need to build. This moment can be a moment of change if we reclaim our political agency to challenge the status quo and to cast a vote not out of habit or allegiance but with a sharp vision of what we want to see change.