Why democracy in Africa is failing the Youth in the case of South Africa?

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Irish playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw once said Youth is a wonderful thing. What a crime to waste it on children. Surely now we not a waste but Jay Z comes  to mind in his famous protest song “open letter”, when he says “Politicians never did nothing for me, Except lie to me, distort history”  I’m sure every young person resonates with this protest!  Young people are tired of politicians who go around throwing phrases about the people in order to conceal the fundamental division of society into hostile classes with irreconcilably opposed material interests.  

As masses of Africans had gone and some will go to the elections in the hope of using the ballot to deepen the quality of democratic governance among those millions is youth. From the rural localities to major cities, from the continent, at least 20 nations will hold and some had elections, presidential (Nigeria, Tunisia, Mauritania, South Africa) parliamentary (Guinea, Cameroon, Mail) and council polls (Ghana, Nigeria).

Elections in any country serve as a critical test for the notion of democracy, and this year is a critical election year for many states on the African continent, diabolically high levels of youth unemployment   and struggling economies. South Africa  alone unemployment rate has risen to its highest level since the third quarter of 2017 to 27.6% at the end of the first quarter of 2019, according to data released by Stats SA. The unemployment rate among the youth is higher irrespective of education level. 15 to 24 years stands at 55, 2% and 25 -34 is on 34, 2%. The writing is written on the wall, if governments do not act in time indeed we are heading for a serious debacle.  Elections pose an opportunity for the citizenship to choose political parties that they feel are best placed in delivering a quality of life that we so desperately yearning for. Merely conducting an election is not enough to make a country democratic. Moderately, whose interest are these elections serving?

Youth participation in elections is concerning, as only 66% of African youth vote in elections despite youth (aged between 18–35) constituting 77% of the continent’s population. A reason for this is gerontocracy the old age of many of the continent’s leadership is not reflective of the youth, which dissuades them from believing that their vote matters. Youth are often suppressed and seen as violent perpetrators, rather than an electorate or political contenders. Then there is the issue of not relating to the political ideologies or leadership of the competing parties. To move such hurdle, we need to treat young people like the capable and paramount demographic that we are.

South Africa once hailed as best jewels of democracy in Africa, however it is also pushing low in youth participation when it comes to democratic processes such as elections. According to The Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG) the number of 18 to 19 year-olds on the 2019 voters’ roll is 341,236. In 2014 it was 646,313 meaning, the number of new voters has dropped by nearly half (47%). The number of registered 20 to 29 year-olds has dropped 4% from 5,759,236 to 5,299,297.

When taking into account that the population has grown by approximately 7.5% over the past five years, the drop is even more profound. In January GroundUp reported that the voter registration rate is down from 2014 (but not the absolute number of voters who registered). But PMG’s report indicates that the absolute numbers are actually down among youth (overall, including all age groups, registration is up, but not as a proportion of the population).

The question of who is a youth has been viewed from various angles. The age of youth transition phase from childhood to adulthood. The age of youth transition varies from country to country. The United Nations considers a youth to be from the age of 15-24 years, African Youth Charter in which a youth is considered to be between the age of 15-35 years.

The preamble of the African Youth Charter recognizes the fact that Africa’s greatest resource is its youth population. The emergence of the idea of participative governance structures recognizes and advocates for the inclusion of young people as democratic agents. The principal argument is that despite significant knowledge of youth representation, they are still marginalized. Youth around the world face a myriad of problems .The case is even worse when it comes to the representation of the disabled. Which is a major cause for concern?  Decisions that affect youth directly and indirectly are been taken in the African Union and parliament of countries. Like that of South Africa, in the absence of youths.

Last parliament the Parliamentary Monitoring Group findings showed only 23 MPs were under the category of youth (35 and younger) – 18 of these MPs are in the National Assembly and the remaining 5 are in the NCOP.This category of youth makes up 6% of all Members of Parliament. The Mo Ibrahim Index places the African continent’s participation score at 49.4/100, which it deems as “slowing improvement” and uses as indicators democratic elections and the capacity of election monitoring agencies among others. This slowing participation is likely to recede further if African youth are not mobilised, or not allowed, to freely participate in elections.

Incorporation of youth people into key strategic leadership roles is vital for sustainable economic development and the survival of Africa. Despite historical evidence of young people’s contributions in driving changes in political systems, they face multiple forms of silent discrimination and limited opportunities to participate in formal and informal leadership roles. The challenge of youth integration into key strategic leadership roles in South African has to do with the political system as the political analyst Ralph Mathekga would put it, the dilemma with South Africa is that while we are predominantly a youthful nation – with 36% of the population categorised as youth – there is no such thing as a “youth vote” yet. If the youth constitutes the biggest population group in South Africa, why is it that young people do not vote as a distinct group with a specific set of political goals and demands?

Despite the numerous elections, youth don’t expect much change on the continent. Given the topic above, I hope you will agree that necessarily we will have to spend some time reflecting on the events in the continent  so that together we are better able to assess how democracy in Africa is dwindling most  youth. The common fixations in all this countries are levels of high unemployment among young people, lack of youth representation in decision making and trust deficit.

For the African continent to address the challenges that it faces, we need to strengthen Africa’s democracies. The conduct of elections is at the heart of a strong democracy and this is why countries strive to hold them. An effect has done to show the disenchantment example in the famous Fees Must Fall protests, There is no doubt that what we saw in Fees must fall were genuinely popular and peaceful protest  aimed at the democratic transformation of the high education .

Accordingly, the protest aimed to achieve the fundamental transformation of their societies, and not only their political systems. It is also clear that in both instances the youth and students exercised leadership by taking to the streets and by their persistence until the objective of the protest was achieved even all thou they succeed minimum. The continent needs to realise that the time has come to defend the founding promise of democracy and development by doing all that is necessary to stop the systemic and institutionalised process of betrayal that is now in its final stage of execution of youth . It is not too late. 


Ngelengele Chimurenga Ntete is a UNISA Humanities student.