In less than two months South Africa will be holding its fifth democratic elections and political parties have hit the ground running with campaigns, hoping to strengthen their voter base. As generational replacement occurs and younger potential voters enter the system in growing numbers, political parties will ramp up their charm offensives to woo this demographic in the run up to the country’s 5th general elections on May, the 8th. As the 2019 general elections approach, it is no surprise that the political engagement of the youth has come into emphasis amongst political parties and the media.
Regardless of how they will vote, it is critical for the country’s democratic wellbeing that they become part of the voting public. Young people make up a substantial proportion of the voting age population, which means that their vote can potentially shape the society within they pursue their aspirations. In light of this, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) last yearembarked on an extensive campaign to stimulate democratic political participation amongst young people, by launching a digital communication and education campaign which utilises the catch phrase “Xsê” – a play on the Afrikaans phrase “ek sê” meaning “I say”. This campaign primarily served as a vehicle to encourage young people to register and vote in the upcoming general elections.
The campaign seems to have been successful. According to the IEC, over 81% of the new registrations recorded at the final registration weekend in January were under the age of 30. To encourage further voter registration amongst youth, the IEC intensified its registration drives at university campuses and other higher learning institutions.
Although the Commission can be satisfied with the overall registration level, recent research cautions against over optimism about the actual turnout of young people on election day. Findings from the latest Afrobarometer Survey for South Africa, which was conducted in 2018, show that more than half (53%) of South Africans say they do not feel close to any political party. The comparable figure for the previous round of the survey, which was conducted in 2015, was 23%. When disaggregated by age, the data for the 2018 survey further shows that more than half (59%) of these respondents are below the age of 35.
Youth turnout is not guaranteed and should not be gauged from mere registration numbers. As political parties proceed with launching their manifestos, they must be prepared to innovate in their attempts to address key youth concerns. One such key concern, is the question of skyrocketing youth unemployment. Those who fail to present convincing solutions to this scourge, will also fail to attract the attention of this key demographic. Other equally pressing issues that affect them include, the state of the country’s public education system, poor delivery of basic services, and crumbling or non-existent infrastructure.
Their turnout at the polls on the 8th of May, should, however, not be seen as a gauge of their interest or apathy. Most young South Africans acknowledge the importance of voting as a means to bring about the change they want to see. However, they also seek to be made part of the solution. As a country we need to reach common ground with an agreement that any discussions about the future of South Africa needs to include its largest population segment.
This involves their inclusion in leadership positions in areas that directly affect them. Fostering youth leadership primarily requires creating a space for the youth to live up to their full potential and this is what political parties and government should now set out to accomplish leading up to the elections. Failing to draw on this important constituency, will come at the price of prosperity and advancement of the country.
Gugu Nonjinge is a Project Leader at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.