Getting back the elusive youth vote

There are many contestations over the definition and constitution of “youth”. In South Africa, according to the recent National Youth Policy, those within the age group of 15-34 constitute more than a third (34.7%) of the population. At the age of 16, one can register to be a voter, then at the age of 18 one is eligible to vote. 

South Africa has witnessed a decline in voter turnout across age groups in every subsequent election after the landmark 1994 national elections, including, of more concern, among the youth. 

Ahead of the highly contested 1 November 2021 local government elections, the role of this cohort in the state of politics and democracy demands inspection. Youth participation in how they want to be governed and official representation in institutions that are tasked with decision-making to that effect is essential for the existence and well-being of democratic political culture and the effective governance of their spaces.

The country is contending with a multitude of economic, social, and political challenges. These include a stagnant and declining economy, the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and widespread public sector corruption. The challenges have significantly fuelled unemployment, deep-seated poverty, widened inequality and exacerbated competition for already scarce socioeconomic resources and opportunities. 

While not exhaustive, uniform and confined to a single problem, these issues impact the country’s youth at an individual and collective level. They are barriers to participation, and they fuel disillusionment with the governing architecture.

Is apathy a defining characteristic? 

Much has been written and said about people in this age cohort. A significant issue is a reluctance to participate in formal political processes, a key characteristic being a lower-than-expected ballot turnout. Political apathy among the youth is not unique to South Africa. Globally, in established democracies and developing ones, younger people tend to participate less in conventional politics and frown upon formal voting processes. 

An exceptional example that goes against this norm, close to home, was the 2021 Zambian national election. Zambia, a country where more than 60% of the adult population is between 18 and 34 years old, experienced its highest voter turnout in 15 years at 70.61%, with the youth vote playing a  decisive role in the outcome.

What does the data say? 

The voters’ roll for the 2021 local government elections suggests that the number of registered voters across all age groups as taken as a proportion of the total number of eligible voters has declined since the 2016 polls. This decline suggests a decrease in citizens’ interest in participating in electoral politics. However, even more concerning is the rapid decline in the registration rates for South Africans in the 18-19 and 20-29 age groups, especially since the 2014 national election. 

That the decline has been evident for so long demonstrates that a low registration rate cannot solely be attributed to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. For the forthcoming elections, nearly 1.8-million eligible 18-19-year-olds have decided against registering to vote. Another cause for unease is that registration rates among the 20-29 age group have also declined since the 2016 local government elections.

This is troubling because it suggests that compared to before, a larger number of the former 18-19-year-olds who are unregistered are also not deciding to register in their 20s. Even worse, it implies that this group is falling out of the electoral process altogether, thereby increasing the overall population of non-voters in South Africa. 

As with any social phenomenon, it is difficult to attribute this decline in voter registration — particularly among younger South Africans — to any singular cause. Nevertheless, one likely explanation for these declines is the lower levels of trust younger South Africans have in various political and social institutions. 

According to data collected in 2018 by the pan-African survey Afrobarometer, while political trust in South Africa is generally low, surveyed South Africans in the age groups of 18-25 and 26-35 are less likely to trust surveyed institutions in South Africa. 

One data point that does not augur well for the 2021 local government elections is the indicated level of trust in local councils, which as the graph shows, stands as the second least trusted institution overall among 18-25-year-olds and as the least trusted institution for the 26-35 age group. 

(John McCann/M&G)

This low level of trust indicates that while the government needs to make a conscious effort to increase social and political trust across the board, one area that requires particular attention is the level of trust South Africans have in local government institutions. Unless swiftly addressed, increasing cynicism in local government, particularly among younger people, will continue to result in less participation in elections for this sphere of government.

Youth in the municipal space

Municipalities are at the coalface of service delivery. Considering the proximity of this sphere, it is the site of a direct interface with the government for most people. It is where they live, work and play. As a sphere of governance, the local municipality provides both technical and administrative services for populations.

Municipal provisions range from water, sanitation, electricity, collection of refuse and maintenance of road infrastructure. Other deliverables include primary health to public libraries and the administration of by-laws, municipal permits and fines. 

The multitude of frustrations of service delivery, ranging from incapacitated municipal bureaucracy, red tape and the poor state of roads, water and electricity, as well as evident acts of corruption, are frustrating and lead to a trust deficit among young people. 

Historically, it has been difficult to encourage and cultivate young political leaders in South Africa. This problem is especially clear at the national level, where the political space still lags in accommodating youth. 

Parties have given conflicting messages about youth leadership. 

The Democratic Alliance’s (DA) treatment of its young and black leaders in the purging of Lindiwe Mazibuko, Mmusi Maimane and treatment of Mbali Ntuli are examples. 

In the ANC, after the last national election in May 2019, only one cabinet minister, Ronald Lamola, belonged to the youth cohort. 

The emergence of the Economic Freedom Fighters as a political force is often cited as an example of the increased presence of young people in South African politics for both representation and voting. Yet voter registration rates among young people have continued to decline even after the party’s founding in 2013. 

Ahead of the local government elections, political parties are beginning to recognise this lack of representation. The ANC has promised to ensure that 25% or one in four candidates for the upcoming elections are young people. However, political parties need to ensure that they fulfil these pledges or risk worsening the already worrying trends among young people in their voter registration rates and their levels of institutional trust.

Not all South Africa’s young people can be politicians, councillors, and mayors. Municipalities need professional expertise to run effectively, both technical skills, from water scientists to engineers and town planners, to skilled administrators in the form of financial managers and support services. 

The local government space has been politicised, and across the municipal hierarchy, appointments to positions are often not based on merit but on party lines. Programmes such as the Expanded Public Works Programme to provide opportunities for skills and income for unemployed and underemployed people are often used as a way of rewarding party loyalists. 

The appointment of unqualified cadres to senior-level positions are also typical, for example, the Marietha Aucamp scandal in the Tshwane metro. A pool of skilled and educated youth is excluded from jobs because of their lack of political connections. This goes against attempts to professionalise the public service and leads to frustration, alienation, and ineffective governance outcomes. 

What is the way forward?

We must continue to interrogate the societal, economic, and political factors that continue to undermining good governance efforts and reinforce existing patterns of exclusion that fuel disengagement. Young people will, after all, bear the brunt of current decision-making in the future.

Engaging and capacitating youth as critical stakeholders is of utmost importance. Youth inclusivity in decision making on governance is not a favour or a recommendation. It is a necessity. It must be prioritised if the country is to make meaningful strides towards sustainable development at all levels. Importantly, the local state must provide opportunities for access to growth and governance by empowering the young to bring forward-thinking and innovation to current problems. Adequate skills must be incentivised. 

Furthermore, voting must be encouraged as a form of political expression. Civil society must strengthen agency through civic education drives. Participation in voting will encourage solid choices and effective responses to concerns such as corruption. Managing these considerations will be crucial for those who seek to attain the youth vote as the election approaches.

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Stuart Mbanyele
Stuart Mbanyele is a researcher in the governance delivery and impact programme at Good Governance Africa
Pranish Desai
Pranish Desai is a ​data​ analyst within the governance insights and analytics programme at Good Governance Africa. His research interests include African governance, quantitative social analysis, and political geography.

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