That there is a massive switch-off from politics by young people is now undeniable. The latest voter registration figures released by the Independent Electoral Commission on Thursday reveal that just less than half the eligible young voting population have turned out to register.
Consider that this group (aged between 18 and 25) comprise one-third of the population and it’s clear we are sitting on a timebomb. It presages a next generation with little understanding of citizenship and even less trust in the institutions of democracy.
A companion piece of research by Yfm reveals that of 800 youngsters sampled, a staggering 98% said politicians were not honest; most did not trust “official” voices and two in three said politics was not important to their lives.
Some of this is quite normal. Without a struggle to fight for in a world of little ideology, this generation may indeed represent a normal society. Maybe it is OK (even remarkable) that the young lions in the red and yellow T-shirts of many causes have given way to a generation of stoned cherries wearing designer Steve Biko and Che Guevara rags. Perhaps it is a healthy sign of normality that watching an Orlando Pirates game (as most rational-minded South Africans do at weekends) is prioritised over listening to a politician urge you to buy into a “People’s Contract”.
The catch, however, is that while the new order has brought tangible benefits to some of these young people, many are still out on the margins of society. As the research indicates, a major cause of youth apathy is declining faith in the political system. Therein lies the danger.
It is our view is that while it is remarkable, it is not OK that young people have switched off so completely; that generations of involved, politicised, demanding and creative youth have not spawned a generation as demanding and involved in the freedom years. Are we never to know another generation of Oliver Tambos, Anton Lembedes, Onkogopotse Tiros and Barney Molokoanes?
History teaches us that when ordinary people switch off politics and stop exercising their democratic rights, powerful and selfish interests take control of the state machinery and pervert it.
There is no one thing to blame for this sorry trend in a baby democracy, but organised politics must take the biggest rap. The ANC is getting old and failing to renew itself; its youth league is filled with rhetoric-spouting businessmen riding the empowerment bandwagon while pretending to be disciples of Marx, Engels and Fanon.
The opposition is flailing on the sands of shifting coalitions and floor-crossings, all of which are a huge turn-off.
What is needed is a new and sexy politics: be it parties representing the issues of the young or a change of guard at the top of the establishment. The language of politics has to change, the style and frequency of engagement with young people has to be radically improved and the youth have to be made to feel they have a stake in the democratic system.
Talk to them and generation Y will make its X.
An end to label libel
President Thabo Mbeki is striking a more conciliatory note nowadays, and, we trust, not just because a general election is looming and the African National Congress is after the white vote.
Mbeki’s latest ANC website column is to be welcomed for its measured tone and emphasis on the need for forgiveness and fraternity among once bitterly divided South Africans. We heartily endorse his call for an end to the “apartheid spy” label as a blunt weapon in political dogfights.
Can we politely suggest that a ban on “label libel” is extended to all our public discourse? It would be helpful, for example, if the president purged the term “ultra-leftist” from his political lexicon, particularly when directed at essentially reasonable leaders of the trade union movement.
Another Mbeki favourite, “counter-revolutionary”, deployed against opponents of government economic policy, should also be quietly ditched. South Africa is not a revolutionary state; it has a reformist government committed to evolutionary and constitutional change. “Imperialist”, used to describe critics of Zimbabwe’s human rights enormities, and “racist” as a knee-jerk counter to the official opposition, or as a defence by public servants caught with their fingers in the till, should also disappear into the round file. And let’s not forget “fishers of corrupt men”, a catch-all smear for investigative journalists whose exposés embarrass the authorities.
The problem goes beyond a presidency addicted to sinister labels (“some among us”) and catchy sound bytes (“two nations”, “the tide has turned”, “African renaissance” …). Politicians of all kinds love to coarsen and over-simplify. Take the old Democratic Party’s use of the ghastly term “guilters” for whites with a conscience about apartheid, and the Pan Africanist Congress’s “settlers” for all paleskins, even those born and bred in South Africa.
Apart from the violence they inflict on the English language, and their potential for sowing needless division, all these terms are relics from ideological pre-history. As underlined by the feature on the youth in this edition of the Mail & Guardian, a new generation of South Africans is emerging for whom they have no meaning.