Moving the needle: The youth vote in South Africa
18 April 2019
As Election 2019 kicks into full swing, the numbers, names and details have become available, much of it online. A healthy 48 political parties will be contesting the national elections, with 26.74 million - or 74.4% - of the voting population having registered to vote. Of this number, 55% are women. A significant number of registered voters, almost 25%, are in the 30 to 39 years age group. Amidst this positive news is the real news, that 9.8 million eligible voters have not registered to vote, with a significant 62% of these under the age of 30 years, according to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC).
The obvious question is why?
In a previous article, Coming of Age: Why the Youth Vote Matters, the following was posited, “What future would you like to see, and how will you get there?”. This question takes on a greater urgency in the light of the large numbers of youth voters who will not be exercising this democratic right. Perhaps some of the reasons relate to poverty and the cost and logistics of getting to voting stations to register to vote. These factors were identified at a CUD Roundtable Discussion on 28 March 2019, What will Count in the 2019 Elections. Reza Omar, Strategic Research Director at Citizen Surveys and Dr Collette Schultz-Herzenberg, Senior Lecturer in Political Science, University of Stellenbosch, were the speakers. Dr Schultz-Herzenberg advocated for an automatic registration system when people reached the age of 18 years, emphasising that this was not tantamount to forcing people to vote but would potentially reduce the “hassle factor”. These suggestions were viewed positively by many in the audience at the discussion and, if implemented, might well result in a few more people turning out to vote. It is, however, not clear that the solution lies here. Even without these impediments, the question is whether the actual numbers at the polls would show otherwise.
An additional consideration for most young people is that of having a diverse menu of political options to choose from, and the best means to access this information. On the latter point, the IEC and a myriad political parties have studiously attempted to use social media and other technologies to publicise information, as opposed to previous strategies of focusing exclusively on littering the roadside with posters and banners. The IEC’s Xse (Ek sê) campaign, logo and television advertisements are an attempt to capture the interest of the youth voter. So a glance at a phone, every few minutes, will provide information sought, while Twitter and Facebook are fora for commentary and critique amongst peers.
The thesis that young people of voting age, prefer a myriad and diverse slate of options is a point also worth interrogating, considering the number of political parties contesting the elections. A very tongue-in-cheek analysis of the 48 political parties shows no lack of options. There are 16 parties beginning with an A (and many of these were concocted to appear on the first page of the ballot paper); 2 with a B; 4 with a C; 2 with a D; 2 with E; 3 with F; 1 with G; 3 with I; 1 with L; 1 with M; 2 with N; 4 with P; 3 with S; 1 with U; 1 with V and finally 1 with W, being the Women Forward. If this were an academic report card of the average young person, there would be cause for celebration. Alas, the offering is feeble, and the party propositions offer little succour to the majority of the nine million unregistered voters, especially the youth.
The appeal of these 48 political parties is varied, with ideologies ranging from the far left, like for instance Irwin Jim’s Socialist Revolutionary Worker’s Party, advocating the abolishment of the capitalist system, to Malema’s EFF and BLF with their Africanist views, to more centrist parties, like Patricia de Lille’s GOOD and the DA, to those on the right of centre, like the ACDP. With time and inclination, the manifestos of each will shed more light on their strategies. However, it is unlikely that young people have bothered to drill down and get to know what is offered to them.
The reasons for youth apathy, anger and cynicism about the elections are well-known and detailed in the article cited above. Few political parties, bar the EFF, have expressly pitched a line to the youth or have mobilised this constituency to any extent. The EFF have found the sweet spot of the disillusioned, under-educated and unemployed youth and are using this to full effect. Unfortunately, their approach risks breaking up an already fragile social compact and resulting in even greater racial polarisation.
Every political party, without exception, should be gravely concerned about the current turn of events, if the voter registration process is a barometer of interest in and the health of our constitutional democracy. The risks associated with this voting bloc turning away from democratic principles and processes should sound the loudest alarm bells. The question for political parties is how do they intend to move the needle in order for young voters to see their roles in deepening and thickening democracy in South Africa, as opposed to witnessing an endless game of political point-scoring by parties intent on promoting their own narrow interests, and not those of the electorate.
This responsibility, however, cannot exclusively be placed on the shoulders of political parties. Young voters should themselves heed the prophetic words of former US President Barack Obama, when he said, “What I'm asking for is hard. It's easier to be cynical; to accept that change isn't possible, and politics is hopeless, and to believe that our voices and actions don't matter. But if we give up now, then we forsake a better future”.
It may be too late for the unregistered voters to heed this call, but for those who are registered, the opportunity approaches, come Election Day.
Perhaps it is time for a campaign by all civil society organisations to urge their members - and the the public at large - to exercise their democratic right to vote on 8 May 2019, lest we weaken or even lose that right in future.
By Ms Zohra Dawood, Director, Centre for Unity in Diversity, 18 April 2019