/ 26 February 2024

Elections: Young people must participate in shaping their future

18a06601 00 The Youth Need To Vote
This year's elections are pivotal for African youth to redefine themselves in the electoral process. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

This year 2024, South Africa celebrates its 30th anniversary as a democracy. Key to this year’s elections is the participation of youth in the country’s economic and socio-political terrain.

Historically, young people have been at the forefront of resistance and acting against injustices in South Africa. One such example was the formation of the ANC Youth League in the early 1940s by the “young lions”, which consisted of Anton Lembede, AP Mda, Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Robert Sobukwe and others, to fight apartheid. The 1976 Soweto uprisings as well as the 2015 and 2016 #FeesMustFall (#FMF) movement are also evidence of the youth’s ability to carve a pathway for a desired outcome. The current young generation can draw inspiration from these examples.

Amid the socio-economic problems facing youth, which include poverty, and a high unemployment rate, there is a vacuum of youth participation in the country’s affairs. According to the latest statistics from the Electoral Commission of South Africa, the percentage of registered voters aged 18 to 39 accounts for about 43% of the total number of registered voters in all age groups. Although the last voter registration drive, which took place on 3 and 4 February 2024, recorded an increase in the number of young people registering for the first time as voters, additional effort by the youth is still required given that they are the largest demographic of South Africa’s population. 

The youth have a voting power that could upend the results of this national election to the benefit of future generations.

Same script, different cast 

The governing ANC has fallen short in dismantling apartheid constructs. The high inequality levels coupled with the spatial planning has left black people in the same, if not worse, positions they were in during apartheid. This is reflected in inadequate access to basic infrastructure and services such as housing, water, sanitation, healthcare, education and employment. These should serve as the catalysts for youth activism and voter education. In as much as these conditions affect both young and older South Africans, it is the youth that bears the brunt of unequal access to work opportunities given the stagnant economy.

The youth unemployment rate as per the third quarter of 2023 is 58% (a slight decrease from the second quarter) and the gross tertiary enrolment ratio is less than 30%. The latter can be attributed to several reasons such as unconducive learning environments for learners at schools in informal settlements that don’t have adequate resources and facilities to enable them to excel and compete equally for space at institutions of higher learning. 

Although there may be integration in the basic education system nowadays, with some learners who fall under the previously disadvantaged category being able to attend former Model C schools, we cannot be oblivious to the inequality that is still prevalent in this sector. It is in these critical areas that the government has failed in advancing the transformation agenda. 

Counteracting harsh realities

Considering all these problems, the question boils down to, “what can we, the youth, do to salvage ourselves from these worsening conditions?” Many argue that young people’s voices are not being heard, hence we witness extreme measures being taken by the youth including violent protests in areas where they live and in the institutions of higher learning, as well as abuse of substances, including drugs. 

But young South Africans have the potential and power to shape their future by voting in the upcoming election. The youth can make the adage “2024 is our 1994” to be as effective as the first democratic national elections on 27 April 1994. 

Reverend Isaac Wauchope, a South African anti-colonial activists during the late 19th and early 20th century, wrote: 

“Your cattle are gone, my countrymen! 

Go rescue them! Go rescue them! 

Leave the breech-loader alone and turn to the pen. 

Take paper and ink, for that is your shield. 

Your rights are going! So, pick up your pen. 

Load it, load it with ink. 

Sit on a chair. And fire with your pen.” 

This composition should be adapted for the current period where we find ourselves at a crossroads in deciding the future of our country. With a government that is seemingly in disarray insofar as rescuing its citizens from a myriad of societal problems, South Africans, in particular the youth irrespective of race, class, gender and background, need to rally behind a common cause that will stir their commitment to liberate themselves from any injustice and violations of their rights.

Hlumelo Xaba is at the Africa Policy Conversation’s Southern Africa Chapter, a Pan-African think-tank made up of young people from various academic fields.