As the country gears up for local government elections later this year, young South Africans’ participation will be a focal point.
One of the biggest concerns in any election is young people’s participation, which is historically low. Will the recent increase in youth political activism be reflected at the polls?
Many considered 2015 the year of the student because of the activism championed by that sector of the population. The #FeesMustFall protests also showed that young people, who are often described as politically apathetic, are in fact concerned about politics and governance.
According to the Institute for Security Studies’s 2014 voter participation report, South Africans aged 18 to 29 made up 34% of the eligible voting population for the 2014 national elections – a 10.9?million potential voting bloc. But only 59% of them registered to vote and under-30s ended up comprising just 4.7?million of the 18.6?million people who cast their votes in 2014 – or 25%.
When launching the 2016 municipal poll earlier this month, the IEC revealed that about 7.28-million people under the age of 35 are currently not registered to vote. It plans to encourage first-time voters to sign up during a registration weekend due to take place on March 5 and 6.
The voting patterns in the student representative council elections at five major universities (Cape Town, Witwatersrand, Rhodes, Pretoria and Johannesburg) suggest that even in youth-oriented communities young people are reluctant to vote.
But most young South Africans do not attend institutions of higher learning. A report from the 2015 National Higher Education Transformation Summit states that the country’s participation rate – the measure of higher education enrolment relative to the schooling population – remains low compared with other economically similar countries. In 2012 the gross national participation rate was only 19%.
Despite some pointing to apathy as a reason for the low voter turnout among South Africa’s young people, observers and political analysts say this group is fed up with the socioeconomic conditions under which they live and do not see conventional political participation as a solution.
Lauren Tracey, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, says young people are making a political statement by choosing not to participate in elections.
“Municipalities are at the heart of citizens and voting in the local government elections is the most effective way to get results in communities.
“However, it is clear that young people have continued to grow restless and do not see voting as making a difference in their communities.”
Young people associate progress and service delivery with the national government and not with municipalities, Tracey adds, which is why there is a slightly higher young voter turnout for national elections.
Voting is not the only way in which to be politically active. Many young South Africans have expressed themselves through service delivery protests and the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall campaigns, according to Elnari Potgieter and Barend F Lutz, independent researchers who conducted a report on behalf of InkuluFreeHeid, a nonprofit organisation that focuses on youth-related issues.
Poverty and insufficient voter education are two of the main reasons why young people do not vote, Lutz and Potgieter stated. Their research concluded that, although few young South Africans participate in political activity, this does not mean they are politically apathetic.
As political parties prepare their campaigns for the municipal elections, the youth vote will again be highly prized.
Former Democratic Alliance youth leader and current KwaZulu-Natal provincial legislature member Mbali Ntuli said the high rate of participation in student protests will not necessarily be the same for local government elections.
“I don’t think young people have any faith in political parties. However, talking to issues that affect them, such as unemployment and education, will grab their interest,” she says.
Many students spurned the advances of political parties during the #FeesMustFall campaign, but Ntuli says: “To grab young people’s attention, political parties need to speak to their needs, which are education and the unemployment crisis.”
The Economic Freedom Fighters announced themselves with a strong showing in the 2014 national elections, and claim to have captured the interest of young people with their militant approach and focus on land redistribution and economic transformation.
“The youth will vote EFF in 2016 because of its ideas and its passionate call into a new future,” its national spokesperson, Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, says.
Mainstream politics has been apathetic towards young people, not the other way around, he says. “The EFF is a natural war against geronto-cracy; it is the generational mission of all young South Africans and that is why young people will vote EFF in the local government elections.”
The ANC Youth League’s lack of support for the #FeesMustFall protests might have damaged its reputation among young people, but its national spokesperson, Mlondi Mkhize, said various activities are planned to encourage young people, especially first-time voters, to register to vote.