Young people are an integral part of our democracy. They are a demographic that is mobilising across society, demanding an opportunity to contribute to decision-making processes that not only affect their lives but also the nation at large. They are transforming policies and making institutions more accountable.
Although we admire their growing sense of activism, it is vital to understand where our young people are coming from.
They are still contending with the effects of decades of exclusion and alienation, and the majority of them were denied opportunities to gain an education that would benefit them and their families.
They are also still contending with an uncertain future characterised by persistent poverty, unemployment, inequality and violence. All these forces have an effect on their self-esteem, self-identity, their sense of belonging and their ability to appreciate being fully part of a promised dream of freedom in a democracy.
But, given their participation in the recently concluded national elections, it is important to ask ourselves how belonging affects their civic and political engagement.
To begin, it is useful to compare their participation with that in the May elections. This year, about 26-million voters were registered to vote, but only 17-million people cast their votes. Moreover, according to the Electoral Commission of South Africa, the voter turnout dropped from 73.48% in 2014 to 65.99% this year.
The number of 18- and 19-year-olds who registered on the voters’ roll this year was 341 236, compared with 646 313 of the same age group who registered for the 2014 elections. This was a drop of almost 47% in this age bracket.
Moreover, the number of 20- to 29-year-olds dropped by 4% from 5.7-million in 2014 to 5.2-million in 2019. Although the reasons for the decline are unclear, the question is: Are young South Africans losing interest in elections?
I argue that their low level of participation can be attributed to their frustration with the state’s failure to provide them with desirable prospects. Their daily struggles to secure decent employment, afford an education and provide for their families are some of the matters that continue to affect their participation in civic responsibilities. Moreover, most of them seem to have low levels of trust in politicians, their parties and, at some level, local government.
Despite their limited involvement in formal political activities, the nation has observed the youth mobilising around issues that affect their lives. For instance, the #RhodesMustFall protests demanded higher education reform. It was followed by the #FeesMustFall protests that demanded free access to higher education.
These movements saw young people claiming platforms to speak out about and voice their frustrations with an environment that seemed to reinforce the structure and systemic oppression that has prevented them from enjoying the promised prospects of a democracy.
The protests were an indication of limited avenues in formal structures. Moreover, their dissatisfaction reflects a national sentiment and is not confined to young people alone.
Against this background, it is important that society does not mistake young people’s dissatisfaction with the state and other arms of the public sector for apathy. The youth may be alienated from contemporary South African political culture, but they are seeking platforms to make their voices heard and be involved as legitimate and respected decision-makers in society.
In recognising young people as agents of change in a democracy, society needs to explore new ways to involve them because the traditional welfarist approach has failed. This approach does not recognise the youth as a key contributor to policy decision-making processes.
Instead, a developmental approach is needed. This approach recognises young people’s agency and acknowledges them as legitimate stakeholders with equal voice. This approach advocates for young people’s voices to be heard and for their legitimate participation in nation-building to be recognised.
Civil society in particular must ensure that young people are meaningfully involved in the democratic project if it to be truly inclusive. Society must acknowledge that their voice is integral to our democracy. It must not be silenced, for the youth are agents of change in our democracy.
Paul Kariuki is the executive director for the Democracy Development Programme in Durban. These are his views