/ 15 June 2023

Youth for Parliament: South Africa needs intergenerational leadership

Youth Month
Photo by Phill Magakoe/AFP

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 particularly in elections, they must know their rights and be given the necessary knowledge and capacity to participate in a meaningful way at all levels. Young people are unfortunately not adequately represented in provincial and national elections on candidate lists. 

It is crucial to include and support young people to be on candidate lists, and work with them to address youth issues. 

The current status quo is that young people (those between 18 to 35) constitute just under 5% of parliamentarians in both the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces in the South African Parliament. In terms of parliamentary committees, only four are being chaired by young people under the age of forty-five and male parliamentarians outnumber the female counterparts in every age group.

The gap between the average age of parliamentarians and the average age of the voting population is very large. In South Africa, the average mean age of Members of the National Assembly is 59 and only 30 members of the National Assembly alone fall under the category of youth (35 and younger) at a 9%.

The lack of constitutional or legislative youth quotas in terms of South Africa’s Constitution, any person who is qualified to vote during the national elections is eligible to be a Member of Parliament. Therefore, the responsibility lies with the respective political parties to nominate young people to serve in the South African Parliament.

In March 2023, South African Member of Parliament Fikile Masiko informed the Forum of Young Parliamentarians that the South African Parliament is in the process of establishing a young Parliamentarians’ caucus, as per the request of the Inter-Parliamently Union (IPU). 

Masiko said: “We are at the conceptualisation phase of the establishment of this youth caucus. We have developed the concept document. We are circulating it to the different political parties and within the youth cohort to start discussions and to take the process forward.”

In addition, the adoption of the Electoral Amendment Bill, is predicted to possibly pave a way for young independent candidates who wish to participate in national and provincial elections. However, it is too early to speculate on whether the bill will be able to attract young people to involve themselves in the democratic discourse. 

Young people would not only have to deal with meeting the requirements and qualifications that must be met by persons who wish to be registered as independent candidates, but also face other structural barriers and challenges.

Another “inclusion” mechanism is the Youth Parliament which is not sufficient and does not amount to an increase in youth parliamentarians. A deliberate inclusion of youth in Parliament will be required. Their inclusion will assist in accelerating the youth economic agenda, address barriers to youth participation and employment and engage the overall youth development agenda. 

Youth in South Africa have also played a positive role in ensuring institutional oversight and accountability structures across the three spheres of government, particularly to enable targeted responses to youth empowerment.

Steps to increase youth representation in Parliament

In an effort to dismantle structural and internal barriers for youth inclusion in parliament, the following steps need to be taken:

1. Promoting youth quotas so that parliament is truly representative of the youth South Africa is composed of, and a youth quota that includes a gender parity provision. Youth quotas enhance the selection and promotion of young candidates, helping talented young people overcome some of the barriers to being elected. Seeing younger people represented in parliament can increase the level of political engagement of young people and their legislative representation, adding to a steady growth in the number of youth representatives.

2. Legislating and including the deliberate representation of youth in policies and laws is going to be crucial. The conversation has been going on for years but a lack of political will has led to this simply being a conversation. The Department of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities together with the National Youth Development Agency (NYDA) need to spearhead this policy and legislative process. 

3. Supporting channels for youth perspectives in parliament — including youth caucuses, committees, and other mechanisms — so youth empowerment is at the centre of parliaments. Creating and supporting youth focused spaces provides a platform for young people to express their voices as a collective. This includes resourcing and investing in young people running for elections, since it is costly to participate in the electoral process. 

4. Empowering young parliamentarians, so they are able to contribute to, influence, and lead the work of the South African parliament. Parliaments are not always comfortable environments for young people. MPs of all ages must consider how they can support and empower their younger colleagues, helping them to reach their full potential.

5. Mentoring young aspirants to political office so knowledge, experiences and ideas are shared. Mentorship between generations is a crucial way for young people to exchange knowledge with their elders, and understand how their country’s politics has reached where it is today. Mentoring candidates from different backgrounds can also diversify a party’s membership and level the playing field for promotion within internal party processes.

Political parties and voters need to fully understand that a fundamental principle of democracy is that political systems should mirror society as a whole and represent the desires and best interests of all citizens. Youth inclusion and representation is in the interest of the society, especially considering how youth account for a large proportion of South Africa’s population.

Karabo Mokgonyana is an award-winning legal and development practitioner and programme director for the Sesi Fellowship and Skill Hub, a womxn- and youth-led organisation that provides young womxn with mentorship and skills development.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.