Over the course of the days following the election the media devoted extensive resources, airtime and space to covering and commenting on the historic process. The headlines referred mainly to the extent of the growth or decline of various parties, and the main debate was whether the ANC as the governing party would be able to retain its 60% support among voters.

Some media and commentators did make mention of the low voter turnout, but none bothered to provide a contextual analysis of what low voter turnouts may mean for our young democracy.

It is surprising and deeply concerning that the entire media establishment, committed as they are to maintaining the status quo or at least ensuring the ascension of Cyril Ramaphosa and his faction to the helm of the presidency, failed to raise in any significant way the enormous elephant that stood in the centre of the results operations centre in Pretoria as the results of the elections were announced.

However, the question of legitimacy did not escape the president, who during his victory speech was at pains to make the false claim that: “Our people have spoken; they’ve done so clearly and emphatically”, while describing the elections as a resounding expression of the will of the people.

This claim, and the silence of the media, raises more questions than it answers. Such as: should the media, as the sector of society tasked with raising critical questions be so unanimously silent on such a critical challenge facing our democracy?

Should we be wary of trusting their bona fides? To what extent have the media ignored the question of legitimacy to further their own vested financial and political interests in the political domain? Whatever the reasons, the fact remains that SA has, for the first time since the end of apartheid, slipped back into the realm of minority rule.

Let us consider the facts before we consider the philosophical and practical implications. 

SA has a voting age population of 36-million people, according to the Electoral Commission of SA (IEC). Ten million of the 36-million have not been registered with the IEC. Of the 26.7-million who are registered, only 17,6-million voted. This amounts to 49% of the voting age population in the country, which in effect means less than half of the voting age population participated in the voting process.

As an institution that ascribes to be a democratic process, this should be the first warning bell that our democracy, and the state that emerges from it, carries only minority approval, which is in direct conflict with the idea that democratic representative elections should be an expression of the will of the people.

The implication of a minority voting a government into office is that the wining party in this election has obtained the approval and mandate of only 28% of the voting age population.

But what does this all mean for SA and our political future? Without rehashing the history of how states developed, it will suffice for our purpose to acknowledge that the state emerges as an inescapable institution within all modern societies.

The state is the product of a consensus that it is necessary for social cohesion and for the realisation and protection of individual and collective freedoms and justice for all its citizens, because only an agency with the power of coercion, including violence, would be capable of discharging the many varied and demanding tasks involved. There can be no effective system of justice in the absence of a state.

Given that the state claims the exclusive right to coercion and violence in society, the legitimacy of such a state is of critical importance. It is particularly so in situations where there is a contestation around issues of freedom and justice. 

In such a case we can imagine a scenario in which the social order imposed by the state is just and that the state itself, by whatever criteria, is legitimate. In that case we will naturally say that in view of its legitimacy people are morally obliged to accept the impositions of the regime, and that they are obliged to endorse and comply with the laws of that state.

But what about another scenario in which the regime continues to count as legitimate but certain of its laws are unjust? The injustice of those laws will mean that people are not under obligation to endorse and comply with them. Which leads us to another scenario in which the legitimacy of the state is called into question. When a state or regime is illegitimate the laws it upholds are individually illegitimate and the branches of government that run the state are illegitimate too.

The question of social justice thus bears the final arbitration on the way in which rules and laws are imposed on citizens. By most accounts the social order will be legitimate insofar as it is sustained in an appropriate way, illegitimate insofar as it is not sustained in an appropriate way. 

Take as an example a situation in which the state uses its vast resources and monopoly on coercion and violence to undermine the social justice claims of a community such as Xolobeni, or as it has done in the past on the workers of Marikana, and continues to do against thousands of protests that erupt across SA every year.

If the government has been elected by 28% of the voting age population, how could it consistently claim to be either elected by the majority, or that it may legitimately impose its coercive privileges to deny social justice and other freedoms to thousands of communities who protest against the lack of social justice? In such a scenario we now enter into the realm where, as Jean-Jacque Rousseau suggested 250 years ago, many existing states (during the 18th century) are not involved in a legitimate exercise but merely in “subjugating a multitude”.

Have we arrived at that point so soon after the end of one form of minority rule, only to be duped into supporting another form of minority rule? At play here is both the limited form of democracy that dilutes citizens’ participation in the democratic process to making a cross once every five years for a preferred ruler, as well as the denial of real and meaningful participation of citizens in their own governance.

Not only have more than half of the voting age population refused to participate in the limited franchise offered to them every five years as a substitute for participating in their own governance, but they have also been denied real and meaningful opportunities to participate in their own governance. 

It may be possible to imagine a legitimate state system in which the majority do not participate in representative electoral processes, but who nonetheless meaningfully participate in their own governance through other institutions, but it is not conceivable that one can have a legitimate state in which both elements are not realised.

In SA currently, both elements are not realised and thus the question of the legitimacy of the state must arise. The fact that our media have been so silent about this blatant inability to meet the minimum threshold of a democratic state must be a grave concern to us all. 

The media and the political establishment are taking a dangerous gamble that the rising trend of protest, disaffection and alienation of a growing army of unemployed and desperate youth will somehow miraculously dissipate, the dilemma of the state’s declining legitimacy will not be called into question and the media’s complicity in legitimising such a system becomes all the more critical.

The task of the media is to ask the critical questions and place them firmly in the public discourse, not to hide them from view. Anything less is a betrayal of the struggle for democracy and social justice.

• Rutledge is executive director of Mining Affected Communities United in Action and Women Affected by Mining United in Action