South Africa


Missing youth vote leaves a vacuum in SA democracy

Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) voting officials prepare a voting station for some of the millions of South Africans to vote in the early morning light at a church in the poor slum of Alexandra Township for the local elections, Johannesburg, South Africa, 18 May 2011. South Africa is holding local elections today and may see the ruling ANC loose ground to the official opposition, the DA (Democratic Alliance). EPA/KIM LUDBROOK

With the 2019 national elections looming, political parties and the Independent Electoral Commission need the youth, who are closing in on forming half of the population, to come out and vote. The former will need them in order to gain political power and the latter to legitimise the electoral process. And yet, young people don’t seem to be interested in the politicking of the day.

On Thursday, the Independent Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) launched its 2019 National and Provincial Elections Campaign at the Gallagher Convention Centre in Midrand after being granted an extension by the Constitutional Court.

The campaign, with a new focus on encouraging young and first-time voters to participate in the electoral process, was launched before the final voter registration weekend of 26-27 January, when the IEC hopes to finalise the registration of 1.6 million voters with missing addresses and attract young people to take part in the polls.

According to StatsSA 2017 figures, young people aged between 15 and 34 make up almost 25 million of the country’s population. Electoral Commission Chairperson Glen Mashinini indicated that young people aged 18-19 make up only 16% of the voters roll, which is a sharp decline from 34% in the 2014 national elections.

But Mashinini says young people who do register to vote show high rates of participation in the polls. And a surprising 71% of voters aged 18 to 19 turned up in the 2016 local government elections, while only 50% of voters aged 20 to 39 showed up at the polls.

Mashinini says he hopes that if the IEC can get more young people to register, they will show up.

As a result, the Xse (Ek sê) campaign — with a newly designed logo and a TV advert to go with it, is an attempt by the IEC to speak to the youth in their language and encourage them to take part in the polls.

We zoned in on a phrase that is uniquely South African. It’s cool and can be used easily by anyone across the culture lines. It’s a call to action phrase, one that prompts you to take notice and take action,” said Electoral Commission chief electoral officer Sy Mamabolo.

The IEC campaign hopes to bring in young people to register at its 22,927 voting stations across the country during the last registration weekend.

The youth are not apathetic, but converse differently and receive information differently. The campaign has a youthful feel to it,” said Mashinini.

According to Godrich Gardee, Secretary General of the EFF, who spoke to Daily Maverick at the launch, there has never been a focused campaign to get young people to vote.

The campaign speaks to the right constituency who will take the country forward. The future belongs to the young people,” said Gardee.

And yet according to a 2016 study, Do you want my vote? Understanding the factors that influence voting among young South Africans, rather than being apathetic, young people feel alienated by government’s lack of responsiveness, poor service delivery and corruption.

And based on Stats SA’s Quarterly Labour Force Survey for 2018, youth unemployment stands at 38.8%. It is no wonder the born frees have grown disillusioned with the Rainbow Nation’s dream of an equal society.

Furthermore, through interviews and focus group discussions, the study shows that young people have shown “signs of dissatisfaction with the currently available choices” of political parties.

In the 2018 SRC elections at the University of Cape Town, with an overall population of 25,648 students, only 5,097 (19.9%) of students went to the polls, a majority of whom were undergraduates (4,807). Only 267 out of 6,525 postgraduate students went to the polls.

Students are usually excited about voting in their first year and stop after that. This shows a trend of young people losing trust in the electoral process’s ability to bring returns for civic engagement.

As a growing demographic, the IEC will find it more difficult to attract young people to vote for political parties they cannot relate to, which will over time bring into question the legitimacy of the electoral process itself.

However, young people are known to participate in voting when the conditions are right for them. In the 2008 and 2012 US elections, the youth became a decisive vote for the election of Barack Obama, with 50% of voters aged 18-29 showing up to the polls.

As more young people stay away from the polls in South Africa, political parties will be forced to listen to this growing constituency — to not only speak in the language of the youth but meet their demands too. DM


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