An electoral commission official sits next to ballot boxes at the Barbaro Park high school in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, on November 1, 2021, during South Africa's local elections. (Photo by Michele Spatari / AFP)
With South Africa’s youth accounting for more than 20.6 million (about 35%) of the population, increasing their civic involvement and political participation is crucial to building an inclusive society and strong democratic institutions.
For South Africa’s political system to be representative, all parts of society must be included. When young people are disenfranchised or disengaged from political processes, a significant portion of the population has little or no voice or influence in decisions that affect them. A key consequence is the undermining of our political system because of a lack of representativeness.
Inclusive political participation is not only a fundamental political and democratic right but is crucial to building stable and peaceful societies and developing policies that respond to the specific needs of the younger generation. For young people to be adequately represented in political institutions, processes, and decision-making, and in particular in elections, they must know their rights and be given the necessary knowledge and capacity to participate in a meaningful way at all levels.
Why do young South Africans not vote?
To start off, let’s unpack why young South Africans have youth voter apathy.
- Young South Africans feel there is a lack of accountability by political parties and politicians. They think that their vote does not influence how political parties and politicians exercise public power and make decisions in the public interest.
- Distrust in the electoral and political processes because of corruption in government structures. Trust in the electoral and political processes is an important part of getting citizens to the polls.
- Growing negative perceptions regarding the lack of service delivery. The government’s failure to deliver convenient things like consistent access to electricity and water, quality education, access to youth-friendly healthcare services makes it difficult for them to vote because it feels like it won’t make a difference.
- Continued high youth unemployment leads to further youth dissatisfaction with formal political and economic processes. According to Statistics South Africa, “youth in South Africa continue to be disadvantaged in the labour market with an unemployment rate higher than the national average”. For the first quarter of 2022, the unemployment rate was 63.9% for those aged 15 to 24 and 42.1% for those aged 25 to 34 years, while the current official national rate stands at 34.5%.
- Young people are not effectively represented on candidate lists. They don’t know how the government works and how their vote matters.
How to increase youth voter turnout
Now let’s break down how various institutions like the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC), political parties, independent candidates, civil society organisations, politicians, media and other institutions can contribute to the increase of youth voter turnout
- One of the problems that contributes to low voter turnout among young people is low political literacy. To address this, adopting a mandatory, collaborative, practical, and hands-on approach to civic education in schools and in social settings will help mobilise them to participate politically and to develop the necessary internal political efficacy that leads to political participation. The way the communication is done must align with how young people communicate, for example, social media, mainstream media and visual communication.
- Broader social changes have weakened young people’s sense of belonging to a community, which in turn has exacerbated their political disengagement. Our generations have been brought up in a society that is more individualistic and lacks traditional sources of reference such as the family, the community and social class. Contemporary society has failed to prepare young people for community life. These intergenerational social changes have in turn weakened young people’s affective attachment to their community. Promoting social exchanges and developing young people’s social networks will be crucial to affect social behaviour. There should be campaigns and platforms that create high social capital, characterised by dense social networks of mutual trust, social norms and reciprocities, and have higher degrees of solidarity, collaboration and political involvement.
- Reduce barriers to registration increases voter turnout. Electoral reforms that reduce the complexity of the voting process will help encourage young people to follow through and vote. Reforms such as same day registration, which allows people to register when they come to cast a ballot even if they have missed the voter registration deadline, will increase youth turnout. Other registration reforms are providing civic education and procedural knowledge on registration processes.
- Expand voting methodology to increase youth voter participation. South Africa uses paper-based voting. Digital options should be explored to capitalise on the digital footprint of youth and their digital engagements.
- Include and support young people to be on candidate lists, and work with them to address youth issues. The best way to get young people to see the value of their vote is by actually putting in the work.
Why should young people vote
It is one thing to speak about why there is voter apathy and how to increase youth voter turnout, but it is important to directly speak to young South Africans about why it is important to vote:
- Young people have the power to protect South Africa’s democracy. According to the IEC, democracies in danger of losing their freedom register low voter turnouts. The voter turnout during the 2019 national elections is an alarming case study of what the possibilities could look like in 2024.
- Young people have the numbers to bring change into this country. South Africa is desperate for effective political accountability and inclusive leadership that incorporates intersectional mechanisms of governance. Voting according to whichever politician and/or political party that represents the change young people want to see can lead to a change in governance — with the hope that it will lead to positive governance systems.
- Voting shapes how taxes are spent. If young people are contributing to tax, their vote indirectly determines how their money is spent based on governance priorities. It shapes fiscal policy and budgeting in a manner that takes into consideration the interests of young people.
- Youth votes can shape representation of young people in leadership structures and ensure that leaders represent diverse interests. By voting for a political party or politician that speaks to youth representation and interests, young people have the power to ensure effective inclusion.
- Youth voices matter. Young people’s active contributions can bring democratic values to life, leading to the overturning of authoritarian practices. In countries such as ours where young people have led protests that have forced authoritarian regimes from power, young people are likely to feel significant frustration if they are not included in new formal decision-making procedures. This can destabilise democratisation and accelerate conflict dynamics..
Low levels of political participation among South African youth is a serious problem. When low voter turnout rates are unequally distributed, election results are not representative of society and important voices are left behind.
Karabo Mokgonyana is a legal and development practitioner and programme director for the Sesi Fellowship and Skill Hub.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.