Do a web search with the words “young voter”, and most responses invariably include the word “apathy”.
This is not a uniquely South African phenomenon.
“Enthusing India’s young voters” is a headline that appeared during the previous elections in the world’s largest democracy. “Electoral commission woos young voters” appeared during the 2002 local elections in England and Wales. An article on the 2004 United States presidential race, headlined “Young voter apathy: Will America’s youth go to the polls?”, starts off ominously: “There’s a disease affecting young voters. Its name? Apathy.”
There are a number of reasons forwarded to explain low voter turnout among young people. Among these are feelings of exclusion from decision-making processes, which in most societies are monopolised by the middle-aged.
But apathy is not necessarily the reason for a low turnout of young voters in previous elections, such as the 2000 local government elections. Most national surveys, for example, indicate that youth are the most politically engaged and optimistic of all age groups.
Many point to the bureaucracy involved getting on to the voter’s roll. A recent Independent Electoral Commission study on youth and voter registration, undertaken by policy think-tank Strategy & Tactics, indicates that the hurdles start even before: no one can register without a bar-coded identity document. In general, 17- to 20-year-olds are less likely to acquire ID books than older citizens. The need to acquire an ID acts as a disincentive to registration.
There is a simple solution. We must introduce annual ID application and voter registration campaigns for grade nine to 12 learners at schools as part of civic education.
Getting an ID enables a young person to open a bank account, register at an institution of higher learning, apply for a driver’s license and become eligible to receive social grants.
One of the most important factors in low youth participation tends to be the nature of election campaigns. The rule of thumb for any political party, whether majority or in opposition, is to consolidate core support and then to reach out to the undecided or floating vote.
In what is increasingly becoming an information society, first-time and young voters are a floating vote. Unlike previous generations, whose political affiliations bore close resemblance to those of their families, national group or class, for today’s youth those connections are less important.
An 18-year-old who can vote in this year’s election was eight years old at the time of the first elections and grew up during the era of reconciliation and the rainbow nation. They read about apartheid and the national liberation struggle in history books.
This in itself requires adjustment in our approach to election campaigning and voter education. Older voters — who make up the core of current electoral support — still remember a time when they did not have the vote, and are therefore more likely to value their votes.
The new generations of first-time and young voters need a different message. We must address their issues, and not simply assume that the programmes and messages aimed at broader society will also make a difference for young people.
The key concern of young men and women today — irrespective of social position or race — is access. Access to university, technikon or further training, the job market, the professions, the arts and cultural sectors, to land, the professional sports leagues, to finance, markets and opportunities to start their own businesses.
The African National Congress’s election manifesto seeks to address this by making youth development an important pillar of the second decade of freedom.
Practical measures include R15-billion for black economic empowerment, substantially increasing learnerships so that more young people gain skills and work experience, greater focus on improving the quality of education, intensified assistance to the Umsobomvu Youth Fund to provide skills for employment and self-employment, implementation of the National Youth Service, addressing the problem of graduate unemployment and a more focused programme to create an enabling environment for small businesses.
Beyond the elections, the present generation of young people should build on its activism and achievements. These include such examples as the activism of thousands of young peer educators in the fight against HIV/Aids and the advocacy by the youth sector at the Growth and Development Summit, which placed youth unemployment firmly on the national agenda.
In the immediate term, young men and women must use their vote to make a difference and ensure that their issues remain on the agenda.
Smuts Ngonyama is the African National Congress’s head of the presidency and official spokesperson