With the date for South African’s local elections yet to be set, and political parties yet to start their campaigns, all eyes will be on the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) to garner the elusive youth vote and get young people registered on 5 and 6 March 2016. But with just a week to go before the 2016 local election registration weekend, the IEC may be hard pressed to convince young eligible voters that their votes matter.
Over the past few months South Africans have witnessed a wave of protests, most recently seen in the #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall movements. Young people, frustrated and angry, are now saying ‘enough is enough, things need to change in South Africa!’ But whether they see voting in the local elections as the best way to achieve this is debatable.
Following the resurgence of the #FeesMustFall movement last month, students were heard chanting ‘No free education, no election’ as they threatened to boycott the local elections. How effective then, will election campaigns aimed at young people really be? Could the recent wave of protests by students spell disaster for the IEC’s upcoming registration weekend?
The IEC officially launched the 2016 local elections campaign at Gallagher Estate in Midrand in January. The event, attended by various party representatives, traditional leaders and officials, was a chance for the IEC to demonstrate its readiness for the local elections.
As part of its communication strategy and in a bid to get more young people registered and to the polls on voting day, the IEC once again mentioned that the youth would be a key focus area.
This strategy is commendable, but will it be enough to convince the almost 10 million eligible young voters under the age of 30 that their vote matters, and that they should therefore register to vote?
According to Chief Electoral Officer, Mosotho Moepya, as many as 80% of young people under the age of 35 years old are not on the voter’s role. The IEC has also said that of approximately two million young eligible voters between 18 and 19 years of age, a mere 289 000 – or less than 15% – are registered.
During the 2014 national elections, and despite targeted interventions and campaigns by the IEC and political parties, only 33% of eligible voters between the ages of 18 and 19 registered to vote. Could this be an indication that young people are not being swayed by these targeted interventions and campaigns?
In South Africa, marginalised groups are being increasingly conditioned that protesting and demonstrating is the only way to get their voices heard, and have their concerns and challenges addressed. For many young South Africans, boycotting the elections is a political statement in itself; a way in which to illustrate their growing restlessness at the glaring inequalities and challenges.
In 2014, the Institute For Security Studies conducted a study to understand the voting behaviour of young South Africans between the age of 18 to 24 years old. The research found that low levels of youth participation in elections point to a number of factors, the least of which is youth apathy. The study, conducted among 2 010 students in various high schools and tertiary institutions across the country, highlighted young people’s frustrations with the current political landscape. It also drew attention to the challenges they continue to face, which includes youth unemployment, corruption, poor service delivery and poor education. Many of these factors have an impact on whether or not they would vote in an election.
Young people do not necessarily see voting as important, or as something that could bring about change within their communities. As one 18-year-old, high-school student in Gauteng said, ‘I don’t see the need to vote because we have been voting for [a] long [time]. In my community, for the past 18 years there has [still] been no change. They still stay in shacks and there is no clean water. So I don’t see a need for voting.’
Other students said that as long as political parties fail to address the issues that young people face, they will not be voting. As one 19-year-old Further Education and Training College student said: ‘We will complain ’til hell breaks loose, some things will [still] not change. Until [there is] a political party [that] represents what I need and what I feel South Africa needs, I will not vote.’
What more can be done to convince young people that their votes matter and that they are important? In the lead-up to the local elections, young people need to know that their vote is important in bringing about the change they want to see in their communities.
The IEC and political parties need to focus on creating awareness among young people regarding the role that local government plays – particularly in addressing the very challenges that they face. These include the delivery of basic services, sanitation and water, municipal health services, public transport, infrastructural development such as roads, parks and housing.
Young people need to be made aware that local government elections present an avenue to express their demands and highlight their grievances in a way that could bring about the desired outcome. Conversely, they need to understand that boycotting the local elections will only entrench the status quo – and the challenges they face may never be addressed.
Lauren Tracey, Researcher, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria