South Africa’s youth is often seen as a ‘lost generation’; one with no causes or political purpose, an apathetic generation. Some, however, have opted out of democratic processes such as elections due to the disinterest of the ruling elite in responding to their interests. Promises of a bright future are weighed against the lived realities of high levels of unemployment, poverty and inequality.
Since young people make up such a large proportion of voters in South Africa, understanding their feelings about voting could provide insight into the way they feel about democratic participation. This in turn provides indicators on the extent to which they believe they have the power to influence the direction the country is taking.
South Africa has a very young population, with approximately 73% of its inhabitants under the age of 39. According to Statistics South Africa, an estimated 1,5 million South Africans are 18 or 19 years old. With approximately nine months left until the 2014 national elections, there are about 4 million first-time potential voters that have yet to register to vote.
On 13 August, the Chief Electoral Officer of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), Mosotho Moepya, revealed that only 12% (185 025) of South Africans aged 18–19 are registered voters. Among the age group 20–29, only 65% (4 909 421) of those who are eligible to vote are registered. With electioneering for the 2014 national elections picking up, understanding what drives those who do engage, and what discourages those who do not, is critical to strengthening democracy.
In the past few years, social media, mobile technology and online news sites have become platforms for young people to express their views on the state of the country. New public avenues are now available for young people to engage in debates about politics and how they see their future. This has allowed for greater understanding of what has largely been hidden from view, given the lack of access to formal power that most young people have. Online social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter host thousands of young South Africans, some of whom do express political awareness. This post on Facebook provides one example: ‘I'm a 18 year old girl in Cape town and in matric, what I want is for the youth to be instilled by Youth activism of the era of '76 and stand up against the unfairness the youth face in South Africa.’
Traditional media also provide a platform for young people to air their views. In an article in The Weekly, a newspaper based in the Free State and Northern Cape, interviews with young people highlighted some of their concerns about contemporary politics in South Africa. Thabiso (19) stated, ‘There is no need for me to take part in politics where everyone thinks only of his family and close friends. Being a comrade now is no longer about the development of black people or the country, but is all about personal gain. We still have a long way to go to ensure that youth get involved in the preparation of this country’s future. We need to sit down with the leadership and talk about issues that have gone wrong in politics, and rectify them. Although unemployment rates are high, we must stop blaming the lack of education. If I am right, we all have equal access to education, but some youth reject the opportunity to learn.’ Kagisho (19) ‘regrets that the challenges that the youth face ultimately drive them away from politics’.
This suggests that some young people do not feel as though they can engage in formal democratic processes. Interestingly enough, however, while many young people feel excluded from formal politics, a relatively sizable proportion of Members of Parliament (MPs) are young. In 2009, 59 of the 400 (or 15%) South African MPs were 30 years old or younger when they were elected. However, given the way the party list system works in South Africa, it is debatable whether these young parliamentarians see themselves as having a duty to represent their generation, as opposed to primarily acting in the interests of the party elite. Also, with their high salaries and various perks, it is unlikely that these young MPs will truly be able to represent young people who are unemployed or living in poverty.
Most political parties have youth structures that seek to encourage young people to become active in political processes. Indeed, some political parties are increasingly engaging with the youth on social media platforms such as Facebook in a bid to both understand their views and encourage them to vote.
In the run-up to the 2014 elections and in an attempt to get the approximately 4 million young people registered and ready to vote, organisations such as the IEC are making every effort to educate the youth on the importance of voting. The IEC has arranged with the Department of Education to have a school ‘democracy week’ in October to educate the youth. In addition, a national coordinating forum made up of civil society organisation (CSO) members has also been established. This forum will address civic and voter education, which is to be provided by the CSO members.
Young people have an immense opportunity to influence South Africa’s political landscape. It is important to understand what drives them to participate in elections and how key issues impact on their willingness to vote, and for whom. The Institute for Security Studies (ISS) will be undertaking research to explore the views of young, first-time voters in the run-up to the 2014 elections. This project aims to contribute to existing quantitative research by speaking to young people about what influences their participation in democratic processes.
Lauren Tracey, Researcher, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria