/ 21 February 2024

Voter education should be included in the school curriculum

November 01 2021 Local Government Elections 2021, Polling Stations Around Cape Town. Photo By David Harrison
South Africa’s youth are not apathetic but they don’t feel connected to the government and political parties and they don’t trust politicians. (David Harrison/M&G)

With the 2024 general elections drawing closer, talks about “youth voter apathy” are gaining momentum. This cohort consists of people aged 18 to 35. Given that they are the largest voting cohort in South Africa by some distance, it is only natural that young peoples’ attitude to voting is put under the microscope. 

One critical question to ask is: are young people in South Africa apathetic when it comes to voting? The answer to this question is multifaceted. 

First, South Africa’s youth being labelled as apathetic could not be further from the truth. They are aware of their choices and the power they possess. 

Labelled as electoral power brokers, the youth have shown, time and time again, that they prefer organising outside the formal democratic structure, which includes boycotts, protests and campaigns, whether they are digital or on the ground. 

South Africa’s youth will always be recognised for the #FeesMustFall protests in 2016, the protest against gender-based violence at the height of the Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020, last year’s protests against the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) at most tertiary institutions, as well as the protests and calls for boycotts in response to Israel’s actions against Palestinians. The youth in this country has shown that they are far from apathetic; they have proved to be a vocal and knowledgeable group of young people. They have always shown collective activism and agency regarding political affairs. 

Second, young South Africans do not feel connected with the government or the political parties on offer. Older generations in South Africa have been exposed to these parties for a lot longer and know more about them; some are even card-carrying members of those political parties. 

Yes, it is young people’s responsibility to do adequate research and choose one party to vote for, but that is easier said than done. According to section (5) of the Electoral Commission Act, it is the Electoral Commission of South Africa’s (IEC’s) duty to promote voter education. An IEC official told me at the end of last year that he believes youth voter apathy can be attributed to high levels of youth unemployment. Young people focus mainly on finding employment. He further stated that the IEC will have a national and provincial election campaign in 2024 that will mainly target out-of-school youth. While this is a positive initiative, it still leaves a huge gap — high school learners are effectively left out of the picture. 

University students are exposed to politics almost daily, through student representative councils. Looking at the number of young people registered to vote, the statistics are higher among the 18 and 19-year-olds, where 474 874 are registered, as of 4 February 2024.   

In my opinion, the IEC does not make it a priority to educate youth still in school about voting. They should take a leaf out of the department of health’s book that makes it a priority to teach learners in high school about health and sexual activities through the life orientation course. It would be beneficial to young people and the country if voter education was to be included in the school curriculum from grades 10 to 12. 

From observations and interaction with several high school learners, I found that many of them, especially those eligible to vote, lack the knowledge and understanding of active citizenship in a democracy.  Infusing active citizenship and related concepts such as how parliament operates in the life orientation curriculum will develop learners’ and educators’ conceptual and practical understanding of their roles in a democracy. 

The IEC has, over the past few months, increased its social media presence on applications that are used by young South Africans — Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and X (formerly known as Twitter). Unfortunately, this leaves out youth who do not have access to social media because of poor connectivity. Political parties and the IEC do not make enough effort to educate and appeal to young South Africans. 

Young people do not feel adequately represented by political parties and leaders. They feel disconnected, which could provide a concrete explanation for the poor youth voter turnout. 

Third, young South Africans do not trust the people in power for various reasons; they believe that the politicians in power are corrupt, that politicians are only in public office for their own personal gain instead of aiming to make South Africa a better place for all those who live in it. This makes youth lose interest in voting and elections or disassociate themselves from voting. 

Forfeiting your right to vote is not the correct way to voice your concerns regarding the government and those in power. The most important way to solve societal concerns is through the ballot box. Lack of voter education is not only detrimental to the young people as the future leaders of the country but to the country as a whole. The IEC states that unless people actively participate in the process of voting, then the advancement of democracy will not be achieved. It takes constant renewal among citizens to make any democracy flourish.  

Young South Africans believe that they have better things to do with their time and that voting bears no fruits. This thinking is misguided. Five years is a long time to be stuck with something that you do not want or does not work. If our youth does not participate in the next election, they would have to leave with the consequences thereafter.

There are young people doing incredible work to promote voter registration and active citizenship. One of those is a former member of the KwaZulu-Natal provincial legislature, who has made it her life’s work to educate the youth about voting and politics. Mbali Ntuli is the chief executive of a nonprofit called GroundWork Collective, which holds regular activities, especially during voter registration weekends, to teach young people the importance of registering to vote and why they should do it. These activities entice young people to register to vote. 

Enzokuhle Sabela is a third year journalism student at the Durban University of Technology