/ 24 May 2024

The youth must vote if they want change

Whatsapp Image 2024 05 23 At 2.22.19 Pm
Busisipho Siyobi, Patrick Kulati, Asafika Mpako, Pransih Desai and Mmabatho Mongae.

Participation in our fledgling democracy at all levels is the best way forward

South Africa’s youth is often seen as the “lazy generation” but many young people are actually involved in the processes of democracy and creating change. Often what they do is less visible, such as working on social media, and the issues, such as decolonisation, are not clearly understood by older generations. Voting in the upcoming election is one way the youth can hold our politicians accountable, but the real work must be done in the five years between our national elections. This can take many forms, such as participating in community meetings or engaging with your local ward councillor. There is no question that the youth are disaffected, and that there is a huge demand for change.

These and many other issues emerged in a webinar hosted by Good Governance Africa in partnership with the Mail & Guardian on the youth and their vision for South Africa’s future. It explored their hopes, visions and how they see themselves shaping the country’s future.

Moderator Patrick Kulati, CEO of GGA, opened proceedings by asking the panellists what 1994 means to them.

Mmabatho Mongae, Data Analyst, Governance Insights & Analytics, GGA, said she thinks of 1994 as a white paper, setting out what is possible. Busisipho Siyobi, Head of the Natural Resource Governance Programme, GGA, said she thinks of the sacrifices made by those who fought for our freedom. She also thinks 1994 helped to provide more access to basic services like education to more people. 

Asafika Mpako, Communications Coordinator for Southern Africa, Afrobarometer, said that 1994 represented to her grandparents a huge sense of hope. It was a great opportunity for black South Africans to start to realise their dreams. Pranish Desai, Data Analyst, Governance Insights & Analyst Programme, GAA, said for him, 1994 represents change, and what can actually happen when change occurs. 

Mpako said Afrobarometer conducted a survey in 2022 on what the priorities are for young people in South Africa. Topping the list was unemployment; most are more educated than their parents, but are still not employed. Secondly is crime and security; third was electricity; fourth was corruption, and fifth was water supply. These indicate poor performance from the government; only 10% of the youth believe the government is performing well. “Young South Africans are not satisfied with the functioning of our democracy.” 

Siyobi said it is vital to fight for democracy and protect the democracy we have. We have to hold our government accountable through the voting process, and ensure the priorities the youth have outlined are addressed. The surveys conducted over the years show that fewer and fewer South Africans are satisfied with the governance of this country. 

Mongae said  that in 1994, South Africans were hoping that democracy would be accompanied by socioeconomic wellbeing. Although great strides have been made, most South Africans are dissatisfied with the pace at which socioeconomic challenges are being addressed. This begs one to ask “how do South Africans value democracy?” Is support for democracy perceived as being synonymous with the presence of socioeconomic wellbeing, and is the lack of democracy perceived as the absence of socioeconomic wellbeing? 

Kulati asked if young people are involved in activism today, or have they become apathetic? Mongae replied that her generation is often considered as “the lazy generation”, but now there is this huge pressure for the youth to go out and vote. She believes that today’s youth is involved in different issues; for instance, instead of marching, they are fighting issues like decolonisation and working on social media. Activism takes different forms today, many of which are less visible.

Mpako said that to say that the youth is apathetic or non-participative is simplistic. It is true that the youth are not voting as much as they did, but so are older people. The youth contact traditional leaders and political representatives at similar rates to their elders, and participate in protests at the same rates. Afrobarometer is finding that the youth do not believe that taking part in elections will yield the results that they want, and that their views will be heard, at the highest level. Because of this, the youth is turning to different forms of engagement that elevate their voice.

Siyobi said there are definitely spaces for the youth to make their voices heard in the work that the GGA is doing. Desai concurred; he said one area he has been researching is that of coalition governance. When coalitions don’t work, it affects people on the ground, but these days one can use things like social media to liaise with, for instance, your ward councillor. Kulati said that social media can indeed be very effective in highlighting when people don’t do their job. Desai said his work at the GGA identifies where interventions can be made at various levels. Citizens get to know how their area relates to the rest of the sub-continent, and how they can get more involved.


Some comments came in from the audience: How can the youth become involved in reducing corruption, and in improving service delivery? What methods can we use to hold our political leaders accountable?

Mpako said corruption is a huge problem, and there are ways to hold politicians accountable, such as voting in next week’s election, and we can also make change happen in between the elections. Some of the methods we can use to do so is to engage with our ward councillors, members of parliament, religious leaders and political leaders. Other methods are to take part in protests and go to community meetings that address service delivery issues. “We must expand the way we engage in the democratic project, at many levels, and hold leaders at all levels accountable.”

Mongae said we should examine new ways to engage with our democracy, as “the real work takes place between the elections held every four to five years”. It may seem overwhelming to think, “how can I make a difference”; we must maximise our culture of ubuntu and existing communication platforms such as town hall and lekgotla meetings. A study by SALGA in 2015 found that citizens who had engaged with their ward councillor felt more satisfied and were less likely to engage in violent protests. Right now there are many town hall meetings taking place, but these should keep going after the elections, and their recommendations should be put into effect. There must be some way of holding our leaders to account. “We must ask ourselves, how can I contribute towards this democratic process?”

Desai pointed out that nearly half of our municipalities are under investigation for corruption, which takes place at many levels. It is useful to understand the scale of it, and how it can be addressed, for instance through community meetings. It is a challenge for those who do not have money for transport to get to meetings, and they often won’t have data to participate in online meetings. 

The role of business

Siyobi said she believes that the business community has a huge role to play in empowering the youth. One method is through private-public initiatives; this is happening in certain mining communities, which are helping with education, for instance. But in these communities, the focus is on STEM, and there should be more emphasis on the social sciences. 

Desai said businesses can take action by discouraging and calling out corruption, whether it is a rigged tender, or when a position has been bought. When corruption is exposed, it will enhance your company’s reputation. Mpako said she thinks the CSI policies of companies must be revisited, especially when it comes to their scholarships.  When students only qualify for bursaries because they obtain a distinction, it replicates a vicious cycle of empowering only certain people and excluding others. 

The 2024 election

Mongae said there is some urgency among South Africans — including the youth — which helps explain the larger voter registration among the youth. This challenges the idea that the youth is apathetic. It is often said that the youth does not value their freedoms because they don’t appreciate the struggles of the previous generations, but the youth is faced with its own pressing struggles. The extent that youth voter registration turns into voter turnout will depend on various factors such as voter partisanship and the ability to imagine a South Africa beyond the current challenges. About a third of the youth says they don’t know who they want to vote for, even if they have registered to vote. 

Desai said coalitions are happening because of proportional representation, which is part of our system. Because the ANC dominated, there were fewer coalitions, but as they lose ground, there will be more coalitions happening, especially in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal. South Africans must just get used to this new reality. It will help if the process is made public and formalised, so that citizens understand it better and feel more involved.

Mpako said Afrobarometer held a telephonic survey over the last few months, and its results will be released on 22 May. It found that many South Africans don’t know who they are going to vote for, so there is still room for the parties to sway their votes. It also seems to be the case that many young people feel the newer parties and independents represent their interests better than the old parties did. 

Closing remarks

Siyobi said it is important for the youth to vote, to keep our leaders held to account. Our transparency and accountability measures must be improved to ensure more equity. 

Mongae said she is hopeful about the future of South Africa; we are only 30 years old, and despite our past, we have made huge strides, and we should congratulate ourselves for that. What South Africans are saying is “despite the strides made we want new reference points”. What are we going to use our agency to  change the current situation? Our generation’s question is “what legacy are we leaving for the generation after us, what are we doing to make their struggle easier”? 

Mpako said one of the findings of Afrobarometer is that there is a huge demand for change, and for the government to deliver, so that those who exist on the periphery can start to feel part of it all, and make a contribution. She is very proud of the youth who are determined to make a difference. She urged them to remember that the arc of history is long, and that 30 years is short in the bigger picture.

Desai said the youth not voting is a global problem. He urged young people to keep learning about the world and keep trying, even if you fail. “Question what you read, so you can make more informed decisions.”