The question of youth participation in a democracy often comes up during an election period, and rightly so.
In the case of South Africa, it becomes even more important when one considers the historical role that young people played during the fight against the colonial apartheid system. On a much broader level, the fact is that young people make up the largest group of the population.
Regarding the debate on voter apathy, an August 2014 report by the Institute for Security Studies highlighted that only 35% of eligible voters participated in the past general election.
In the run-up to the 2019 general elections, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has announced the registration of 700 000 new voters, 81% of them under the age of 31. The IEC’s chief executive officer, Sy Mamabolo, says this means that the youth have heeded the call to register to vote.
This sounds great and is encouraging but it does not mean that those people will turn out when voting day arrives.
In an interview conducted by Radio 702’s Africa Melane, Pearl Pillay, a director of Youth Lab, a youth-led policy think-tank, addressed this, and more. Pillay was asked whether she was registered to vote. She replied that she was but would not be voting.
In what sounded like a rebuttal, Melane brought the discussion around to the fact that people had died for the likes of Pillay to have the privilege to vote.
The line that “people died for your kind to have the privilege to vote” is to call on the dead, which the likes of Melane use as emotional blackmail to get young people to vote.
Pillay provided a good response, arguing that the decision not to vote could itself be considered an act of honouring that argument, but also that it was simply lazy to use as an argument when discussing voter participation and active citizenship.
History, memory and language are very important in South Africa, which becomes clear when one considers how this kind of message is received by the people for whom it is intended.
Besides the need to recognise the country’s history and appreciate where we come from, drawing on the deaths of people, and often black people, to encourage voter participation will be received very differently by young people. Not everyone will have the same emotional response to that line because not all of them value black death equally. I am certain that, for the average white Afrikaner nationalist who is an AfriForum member, recalling the deaths of black people in an attempt to cure voter apathy will mean nothing.
This act is also the silent cousin to the reminder that the ANC, like other liberation movements on the continent, tend to use — “you should remember what the ANC did for you”.
This line of argument assumes that democratic rule always emerges through bloodshed. It undermines the agency of those who are no longer here; it groups them all into one category and assumes they would have been okay with what is currently taking place in South Africa.
It is also used to endorse the ANC’s position in power, while its members continue with corruption, the corporatisation of the state and unethical governance.
Importantly, the act of registering and not voting can mean that people are participating in democracy. During the 702 interview, Pillay also said that she had been working in the youth development sector for more than five years. This illustrates the limited way in which many people conceive active citizenship.
This was the case with the #RhodesMustFall and the #FeesMustFall movements, which many people criticised for not being the way in which young people should have their say about South Africa and the direction it ought to take.
Another example Melane cited was that of Australia, which legally requires people to vote. But as is often the case when South African lawmakers try to pursue the policy directions of other countries such as Australia, they have not always addressed the South African and African context.
But to indulge this idea, in a country where there are only two major opposition political parties, the Economic Freedom Fighters and the Democratic Alliance (DA), which have not proved to be viable alternatives to the governing ANC, how would such a law affect a potential voter?
It simply means that people would be forced to vote, even when there is nothing that appeals to them. Furthermore, it would not consider that our conception of democracy, as South Africans, does not necessarily coincide with global framings, such as those of Australia.
The ANC’s constant reminder that “you must remember what we did for you” is not only an attempt to undermine voters, it is also a lie with which they seek to erase the role of other organisations and people who were actively involved in the fall of colonial apartheid South Africa.
Melane tried to remind us that people died for us to have the privilege to vote. It is not only disrespectful to the dead, it also disregards the discontent we feel.
Black youths like me are invested in the development of South Africa and the continent. We know where this country comes from and we will not be emotionally blackmailed into voting.
The use of collective memory is, to an extent, not different from the DA’s use of the deaths of the Marikana miners and the Life Esidimeni patients, all for political gain. It is disrespectful to them and their families.
Resorting to embarrassment is a form of violence. I hope that the young people who participated in the fight for free education in recent years will not use it against the generations of young people to come, in an attempt to shame them for making different choices.
Because, for me, people did not have to die for us to have the right to vote, or for free quality education.
Mpho Ndaba is an activist scholar of international relations, media and development. He is a member of the board and chairperson of the campaigns subcommittee at SOS Coalition. He is currently reading for his MPhil at the University of Cape Town’s Environmental Humanities South
This article has been amended to correct the spelling of Africa Melane’s surname.