The ethical imperative of voting

As South Africa gears up for the 2024 election, the importance of voting becomes ever more apparent in its political landscape. Voting serves as the bedrock of democracy, allowing citizens to voice their current needs and future aspirations. While this has not always been accessible to all South Africans, the significance of the voting process remains paramount. However, the country faces a troubling decline in voter turnout, fuelled by political apathy. This phenomenon poses ethical questions about voting and impacts the lives of citizens, stemming from disillusionment with political parties, distrust in government institutions, and a feeling of helplessness to enact real change.

In democratic nations, voting is seen as a vital tool for holding governments accountable and transparent. It is also considered a moral obligation and fundamental duty for citizens. Voting grants legitimacy to a government, forming the basis of the social contract between rulers and citizens. As Jasen Brennan points out, not voting can lead to unfair laws and economic policies that don’t reflect the public’s common interests.

In South Africa, the right to vote holds immense significance due to the nation’s history. Many groups and demographics were previously excluded from participating in the political process, and countless individuals sacrificed their lives to ensure equal access to the political system. As a result, the right to vote holds profound meaning for many South Africans, particularly those who endured the apartheid era. However, despite its importance, there has been a notable decline in civilian participation in the South African voting system. According to the IEC, voter turnout has steadily decreased since the 1994 national election, with the current low of 45.86% in 2021 raising concerns about whether people still recognise the power and moral significance of the vote.

Political apathy significantly impacts voting morality. It undermines the moral obligation of citizens to participate in the democratic process, which is not only a right but also a duty in a democratic society. When sizable segments of the population choose not to vote, the core principles of representative government are compromised. Furthermore, apathy towards politics can lead to decreased government transparency and accountability. When citizens lack interest in politics, there is less pressure on elected officials to act in the public interest. Consequently, decisions may be made without sufficient public input or scrutiny, widening the gap between the governed and the government.

Political apathy presents a critical challenge in South Africa, given its profound implications for the country’s governance. In recent years, the government has faced hurdles in ensuring accountability and implementing sustainable policies. This underscores the heightened importance of the 2024 election, which is poised to be one of the most fiercely contested in recent memory. Amid widespread disillusionment and scepticism toward political leadership, voting has emerged as a pivotal tool for effecting meaningful change in South Africa. The electorate’s participation in this election will not only shape the nation’s governance trajectory but also serve as a gauge of its dedication to democratic ideals and societal advancement.

Amidst this decline in participation, a notable demographic trend emerges: a steady increase in the registration of women voters over the years. According to the IEC Voter Registration statistics, women constitute 55.24% of registered voters, while men make up 44.76%. The largest voting blocs are aged 30-39 (24.6%) and 40-49 (21.53%), with young voters comprising 42% of the roll.

The increasing participation of women in the electoral process raises significant ethical considerations regarding voting. This trend signifies progress towards a more representative democracy, where previously marginalised groups are gaining a stronger voice in shaping the nation’s future. It underscores the ethical imperative of ensuring equal opportunities for political participation and representation, regardless of gender.

Moreover, the surge in women voters underscores the ethical responsibilities of political parties and policymakers to address key issues affecting women. These include gender pay gaps, reproductive rights, and gender-based violence. It highlights the necessity for policies and platforms that are inclusive and responsive to the diverse needs and experiences of all citizens.

With the 2024 election South Africa is confronted with challenges stemming from decreasing voter turnout and political apathy. However, the increasing involvement of women voters signals strides towards a more inclusive and representative democracy. The forthcoming election acts as a litmus test for South Africa’s dedication to democratic values and societal advancement. It underscores the moral duty of all citizens, irrespective of gender, to exercise their voting rights and play a role in shaping the nation’s trajectory.

About the author: Bella Mkhabela is Project Administrator at The Ethics Institute