/ 12 June 2024

Young people should not be mere spectators in shaping the future of South Africa

39th Anniversary Of Youth Day In South Africa
In the past, the youth played a pivotal role in fighting for democracy and negotiating for the new South Africa, but now it seems the youth are ignored. (Photo by Cornell Tukiri/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The seventh general elections in South Africa’s democratic era are done and dusted. It is now left to the political parties that secured enough numbers to go to parliament to reach an agreement on how they will form a government. How they manage their political differences is up to them. What is of importance is that a new government takes charge of our affairs following the democratic expression of citizens through the ballot.  

As a young person who voted, it is my wish and hope that the people at the helm of the negotiation table to make political deals will do so mindful of the plight of millions of young people in this country who desperately want to see a change in their circumstances — especially as far as the economy is concerned. Although I do not know the demographics of those who will be on the forefront of the negotiations to form a new government, I have a sense that the youth will not be anywhere near the negotiation table, despite forming the bulk of the population in this country.  

Leading up to the elections, a huge talking point was the youth’s participation in these elections. The youth showed up to make their voices heard on 29 May, with students from the University of Pretoria standing in line until 3am on Thursday morning to cast their votes. This commitment should be evidence to prove that young South Africans are a patriotic and dedicated group, not the “wet-behind-the-ears” youngsters they are made out to be by the older generation. The youth proved a lot of doubters wrong and that is a good sign for South Africa and it will be interesting to see what the Electoral Commission of South Africa’s statistics will reveal in this regard. Just by looking at social media and through informal interactions, anyone will immediately notice the unhappiness and discontent young people harbour towards the ANC.  

With political matters and the elections, the tendency, including on the part of news media, is to focus on the influential figures. Leading up to these elections, the biggest talking points have been the former ANC president, Jacob Zuma, and his attempt to dislodge his former party from government and a range of other political personalities that journalists get attracted to as in pursuit of a soundbite. The focus has also tended to be on the legal warfare between Zuma’s uMkhonto weSizwe party and the ANC and skirmishes between Zuma and some of his own comrades in the MK party. 

Going through political party manifestos, one gets worried that there is little mention of the youth and how their life, especially in townships and rural areas, can be made better through the provision of recreational facilities especially in the context of rampant alcohol and drug abuse. As a young person, I find this is concerning and this shows how political parties are self-absorbed with power and how big personalities in these parties derive individual advancement through appointment as ministers, deputy ministers and premiers. 

The 2024 general elections were dubbed the most highly anticipated elections since the historic election of 1994 and they did not disappoint, with the ANC losing its majority for the first time since then. The build-up continued, however, to prove that there is disconnect with the youth and the current crop of older politicians. South Africa’s youth, which consists of the “Ama2K”, (a term used to describe youngsters born in the years 2000 and onwards) helped unseat the ANC. If you were to ask me what my general impressions are with the whole election process my immediate response would be that anecdotally, young people displayed huge interest in these elections and it is up to new parties to exploit this interest especially as they build into future elections. 

Even after voting day, as the results were trickling in, the same high-ranking politicians who are eagerly eyeing powerful positions and clinging to political power turned their criticism to the media as well as the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC). This showed that they are willing to alienate anyone who poses even the slightest threat to their power. This raises the question, what do the youth need to do to get recognised and what do they need to do for their voice to be taken seriously by powerful political players, let alone being given leadership positions?

In their 2024 election manifesto, the ANC says, “young people played a vital role in shaping our democratic order. Their advocacy, creativity, energy and activism on a range of issues often push us to rethink our policies and ways of doing things.” The ANC’s foundations are deeply embedded in youth empowerment and trusting those same young people to pave the way forward. Keeping that in mind, the youth unemployment rate in South Africa is 45.5%, according to Statistics South Africa. The ANC president, Cyril Ramaphosa, was a pivotal figure in the Codesa negotiations, and he was fairly young at the time. So, what has changed between then and now? Have young people suddenly become useless in the country? Or are we just dealing with power-hungry figures? Past politicians are coming back for seconds. 

The only time political parties involve the youth is when they need cheerleaders at rallies and people to give T-shirts to at those same rallies. 

In their 30 years as South Africa’s majority, the ANC’s biggest achievement for the young people is free tertiary education that they still had to fight for, the same free education that is run in a dysfunctional manner. That’s the only way they will ever see young people, which is sad for a generation with so much to offer.

Looking at the role of young people in South Africa’s history, they are usually called upon when there is a crisis in the country. It happened in 1976 with the Soweto uprising, in the late 1990s during Codesa negotiations and 2016 with the #FeesMustFall demonstrations. 

Before the 1994 elections, the youth was valued in South Africa, but as democracy has progressed, they have gone from being heroes to being seen as a group of young people who only care about the monthly National Student Financial Aid Scheme  allowance. In 30 years, young South Africans have been battling a poor education system, poverty, an ever-rising unemployment rate as well as crime, violence and substance abuse. 

With pivotal negotiations taking place, South African politicians have a chance to make up for the past 30 years of empty promises to the youth, a chance to make up for lost time. 

The incoming MPs and ministers have two choices: pick up where the outgoing group left off and continue to make empty promises or give young people a lift-up both in terms of service delivery and positions of responsibility, especially in public service. The newly formed political parties have a chance to change this sorry state of affairs by involving the youth beyond just campaigning for elections and filling stadiums. 

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