/ 11 April 2023

Involving young people before the 2024 elections is vital

The youth must take to the voting booth in the upcoming elections.
The writer hopes that South Africans will be racially blind and economically awake as they make their mark. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

In 2024, South Africa is heading to the polls, where citizens will elect members of the seventh parliament as well as the nine provincial legislatures. These elections will be important — 2024 will mark 30 years since the end of apartheid and the dawn of democracy and there is a possibility of having a coalition in the national government for the first time

According to Statistics SA, young people (aged 18 to 34) constitute almost a third of the population of South Africa. After the historic national elections in 1994, the country has not been able to arrest the declining voter turnout across all age demographics, but especially among young people, which is increasingly concerning.

The place of this cohort, given the state of politics and democracy, warrants examination ahead of the much-anticipated general elections. This is because elections, political processes and governance institutions ought to be a reflection of young people, particularly as our democracy matures. 

Youth participation in the elections is crucial to the health of the country’s democracy. Youth participation in elections has been a topic of debate as the post-1994 generation has not, to a large extent, shown confidence in the power of the ballot. 

This has been as a result of democracy failing to live up to expectations. The country has a number of political, social and economic challenges, such as a deteriorating economy, public sector corruption, high unemployment, poverty, inequality and rolling electricity blackouts. For young people, these reflect a society that has not reaped the benefits of democracy. The low turnout of youths to vote threatens the legitimacy of democratic institutions in South Africa. 

The majority of South African youths are disconnected from political processes. This is partly because they believe that their voices are not heard and their votes will not make any difference. Young people lack trust in the political system, as many view politics as corrupt and non-responsive to the needs of the people. 

However, there are many ways to engage young people and motivate them to take part in elections. One is to address the specific concerns of young people, such as access to free education and to employment, and to show the influence voting can have on them. Addressing these issues with campaign promises which are followed up by meaningful action and encouraging social groups to collaborate to push for those promises to be made reality, would get the attention of the young population. 

Politicians need to inspire confidence in order for the youth to trust them with their votes and one way of doing that is for political parties to deploy people who they can identify with — young people. It is important to underscore this because the average age in South Africa is 28 years, while the average age in cabinet is 60, and parliament is no different. 

The Way Forward

Social media and other digital platforms are important ways to reach young people. By using platforms that the younger generation might too often be glued to, political parties and candidates can easily put across their points and shine a light on important issues. 

Getting young people involved on a local level can have positive upshots, encouraging engagement with the community, and vice versa, while empowering young people to act on a smaller scale. 

Low participation rates among young people can be alarming to politicians as it highlights the risk of losing touch with future leaders. Much can be done through mutual cooperation and a concentrated desire to better our world in order to motivate the youth to engage in the political process. 

The government must capitalise on the Independent Electoral Commission’s initiative of engaging university students by fostering research-based discussions, so that young people engage the political process routinely and not just at election time.

By adopting these practical measures to engage young people, we can help to ensure that today’s youths are tomorrow’s informed and active citizens. South Africa ought to be built with the popular support and full participation of its young people, where economic crises are resolved and human and economic conditions are improved with the full and effective contribution, creativity and popular enthusiasm of the majority of the people. 

It is of paramount importance that, as a nation, we invest in the youth so that they present an opportunity rather than a ticking time bomb, by taking action, such as combating unemployment and improving education, so that the youth can acquire skills that meet the demands of the economy. 

The need to involve and empower young people as vital stakeholders cannot be overstated. It is not a favour or a suggestion to include youth in governance decision-making. It is required. If the nation wants to achieve significant progress toward sustainable development at all levels, it needs to give it priority. By enabling the young to apply forward-thinking and innovation to problems, the nation-state must offer opportunities for access to growth and governance. 

Voting must also be promoted as a means of political expression. Civil society must develop agency through civic education efforts. Voting will promote wise decision-making and efficient responses to problems such as corruption. 

The youth and the future will always be linked, neither can exist in the absence of the other. 

Manyaapelo and Gumbi are from the Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg.