Youth apathy: Perception is not reality

The electoral campaign is replete with an assertion that has dogged South Africa’s transition to democracy: the view that the youth are apathetic and, most seriously, contemptuous of politics.

This view is variously held in the media, public discourse, academia and wider society. If accurate, it clearly presents a potent danger, because the youth will eventually — whether they like it or not, or are aware of it or not — have to take responsibility for taking the country forward.

Indifferent youth are a depressing omen for the country’s future prospects.

The youth themselves, it is asserted, see politics as irrelevant to their lives, and many reasons have been advanced for the causes of this serious problem.

Opposition parties contend that this malady is directly attributable to the African National Congress’s failed policies to address South Africa’s problems, including those of the youth.


The government and ANC counter that this is unjustified criticism that refuses to acknowledge the positive changes implemented since 1994.

Still others, especially civil society, argue that the South African environment has changed drastically since 1994, with the youth being animated by other interests, which take precedence over politics.

All these points have some validity, but as with many other issues in contemporary South Africa, there are serious flaws embodied in these interpretations that are informed by crass ignorance, misplaced views, unrealistic perceptions and the plain distortion of facts.

It is trite that the youth of today are not overtly political like their parents — and there is nothing wrong with this. However, serious consideration of this so-called apathy reveals that this assumption is seriously out of touch with reality.

A cursory consideration of Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) statistics emphatically indicates the necessity for serious reflection and revision of these challenged assumptions about the youth.

Strikingly enough, they show that in the last registration drive, 60% of newly registered voters were aged between 18 and 25, followed by the 26-to-39 age group at 22%.

Thus, more than 80% of voters who registered were the youth and young adults. Significantly, the 18-to-25 age group — the one said to be the most apathetic — comprised about 65% of re-registrations.

Clearly, these figures refute the view that South African youth are apathetic. The fact that the 18-to-25 age group has registered in such large numbers for the first time surely proves that the majority of South African youth take the election seriously.

The high number of re-registrations suggests that those who initially registered and for some reason had to register again — for example, those who changed residence — are not disillusioned with politics and the electoral process.

Why then is society decrying the supposed apathy of the youth and painting this gloomy picture? Indeed, is there a need for society to worry about the country’s future?

There are many causes for this jaundiced understanding, but the primary one is related to the tired view that perception is reality.

Most analyses of this issue are biased towards the views of a tiny privileged group of youngsters. These are the self-proclaimed “born free” who resent politics and are erroneously assumed to represent the majority of South African youth.

Their indifferent attitude is understandable, as their parents have escaped the clutches of a disadvantaged background and for them there is nothing to struggle for. But it is thoroughly wrong to conclude they are representative of South African youth.

Newspaper and television coverage of this story overly concentrates on this segment — especially around university campuses, the paragon of this privileged elite.

But for the majority of South African youth — those who still live under debilitating conditions — the reality is different. This especially applies to the youth who live in depressed zones such as squatter camps, townships and rural areas.

For these youth, politics are still very crucial as they realise it is important for them to be the authors of their own escape from poverty by participating in activities like elections.

It is not surprising, therefore, that a simple look at the maps released by the IEC show a high density of registrations in poor rural areas of provinces such as the Eastern Cape, Limpopo, North West and the Free State, and the fringes of metropolitan areas such as Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban.

These are the areas where millions of South African youth, who are still trapped in the rut of poverty, atrocious housing conditions, poor education and so on, live.

Thus, simply blaming the youth as apathetic is a misrepresentation of reality. It serves to justify running away from the truth and the country’s problems. Society, especially political parties, must wake up to the fact that it must concretely address these problems.

For the ANC, the challenge is to consolidate its transformation project and not be trapped into too much self-praise. The opposition parties should start to craft policies that speak to the problems faced by South African youth.

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