By Christopher Rutledge

As South Africa contemplates the outcomes of the 2024 general elections, a striking and troubling reality confronts us: while 42.3 million citizens are eligible to vote, only 27.2 million had been registered. Of those registered, only 16 million voted. 

This means that the current “democratically” elected political parties represent 38% of the voting population of South Africa. This stark disparity underscores a deep disconnection between the electorate and the electoral process, raising urgent questions about the health and future of our democracy.

The South African Constitution enshrines the principle of participatory democracy and the Constitutional Court has previously underscored this central requirement of our democracy. It envisions a society where the voices of all citizens, not just a select few, shape the nation’s policies and governance. 

However, the current state of voter registration and engagement suggests a profound disillusionment with our representative democratic system. When only 64% of eligible voters are registered, and an even smaller fraction ultimately cast their ballots, can we truly claim that “the people have spoken”?

Indeed, the reality is that they have not. The low registration numbers signal a rejection of the current representative model of democracy. Perhaps like me, many voters could not bring themselves to votes for a choice of corrupt thieves, racist and bigoted demagogues and criminally intent opportunists of all hues. 

This crisis of participation, while admittedly a very low bar practised by all so called democracies, nonetheless demands that those elected by a mere 38% or less of the population, take meaningful steps to ensure that parliamentary processes genuinely reflect the will of the people.

Historically, dominant parties like the African National Congress (ANC) and the Democratic Alliance (DA) have often governed with a confidence that belies their limited electoral mandates. This arrogance has led to governance that frequently overlooks the broader populace’s needs and aspirations. In doing so, they betray the very essence of the struggle against Apartheid—a struggle that promised never again to be ruled by a minority.

Yet, here we are, decades later, with a democratic facade that masks a minority rule. This scenario is unacceptable and diametrically opposed to the vision that fuelled our fight for freedom. Our democracy was meant to be one where “the people shall govern,” a principle that seems increasingly hollow as the years go by.

To address this democratic deficit, we must fundamentally reimagine our democracy. This means moving beyond the narrow confines of representative democracy towards a model that emphasizes direct and robust citizen participation. It requires creating mechanisms for ongoing public engagement in legislative processes, ensuring that all voices are heard and considered in policy-making.

Practical steps could include regular public consultations on key issues, citizen assemblies, and participatory budgeting processes. These initiatives would not only enhance transparency and accountability but also restore faith in our democratic institutions. Moreover, political parties and elected officials must actively work to engage and mobilize the electorate, making politics more accessible and relevant to everyday citizens.

Let us demand that our leaders move away from governance characterised by exclusion and towards a truly participatory democracy. Only then can we fulfil the promise of our Constitution and the dream of a South Africa where the people genuinely govern.

The time has come to stop making claims that “the people have spoken” when so many voices remain unheard. It is imperative that we rebuild our democracy on the foundations of genuine participation, ensuring that the power and will of the people are not just theoretical concepts but living realities. 

Let us honour the legacy of our struggle by creating a democratic system that is inclusive, responsive, and truly representative of all South Africans.


*Christopher Rutledge is the executive director of the Mining Affected Communities United in Action (MACUA).