/ 24 April 2024

South Africa’s children are excluded from democratic participation

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Many political parties and the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) have focused on mobilising the voters — to the exclusion of children. But children have the right to democratic participation. Photo: Darren Stewart/Getty Images

Regardless of how the election results turn out, 30 May will be a watershed moment in South African democracy. Many political parties and the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) have focused on mobilising the voters — to the exclusion of children. 

But children have the right to democratic participation.

Child participation occurs when children can discuss and co-decide on all matters that affect them such as school, community matters, government policies and legal policies. It means their voices are both heard and accounted for. According to section 10 of the Children’s Act, every child that is of such age, maturity and stage of development as to be able to participate in any matter concerning that child has the right to participate in an appropriate way and their views must be given due consideration. The state of the country’s democracy at any given time directly affects children. The role of the electoral commission should not be understood only to facilitate elections, but also as part of its Chapter 9 institutional duty to safeguard democratic participation relating to elections. 

The IEC has failed to involve children adequately through civic education and participation. Children are permitted to register for elections at the age of 16, but they are excluded from election education. Child participation, as provided in the Children’s Act, refers to the stage of development and maturity. This consideration is important because it acknowledges the stages of development of children and how they could be included in matters affecting them. Child participation in matters affecting them is not applied blindly, but due consideration is given to their age and maturity. Some children are already participating in socio-economic matters affecting them, and it is irrational for them to be excluded by the electoral commission. For example, children as part of Equal Education are organised in structures for the promotion and protection of their right to basic education. 

Furthermore, the exclusion of children in this democratic process is in violation of Article 12 of the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). According to Article 12 of the UNCRC, the states parties shall assure the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child. In terms of Article 23 of the UNCRC, states parties recognise that a mentally or physically disabled child should enjoy a full and decent life in conditions that ensure dignity, promote self-reliance and facilitate the child’s active participation in the community. Both Articles 12 and 23 are indicative of the state’s duties to ensure child participation in democratic processes and, more importantly, such issues directly affect children. Although the right to vote can be limited by age in terms of General Comment 25 on the Right to Participate in Public Affairs, Voting Rights and the Right of Equal Access to Public Service, this should not be construed as direct exclusion of children from democratic participation.

According to Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in Article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions: (a) to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives; (b) to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections, which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors. The interpretation of Article 25 does not exclude minors, nor does it imply that they are not entitled to civil and political rights such as participatory democracy in voting. However, it may be acceptable that Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is subject to General Comment 25, as noted above. Although it appears that there is consensus on age limitations on the right to vote, the same cannot be said about the exclusion of children on democratic participation during election windows. 

The IEC can take lessons from countries such as New Zealand, where children argued for democratic participation in their #MakeIt16 campaign. Part of the campaign also argued that children, in particular 16-year-olds, were systematically being excluded from a democracy. Earlier democratic participation also has the potential to address the low youth voter turnout. 

Yolisa Piliso is a human rights lawyer and a human rights protection LLM candidate at the University of the Western Cape – Canon Collins Scholar