South Africa


Young people are the neglected and often overlooked electoral power brokers — but only if they bother to vote

Young people are the neglected and often overlooked electoral power brokers — but only if they bother to vote
If we think of young people in generous terms and include voters in their thirties, they comprose a staggering 56% of all eligible voters. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Despite their disproportionately larger numbers in the electorate, young people register, and vote, at far lower rates than their older counterparts, while registration figures for the forthcoming 2021 municipal elections indicate that the situation is worsening.

Dr Collette Schulz-Herzenberg is Senior Lecturer in Political Science at Stellenbosch University.

South Africa’s electorate is relatively young compared to older democracies in the global North. Population growth in recent decades has produced a significant number of young, new eligible voters.

Using the latest Statistics South Africa 2021 mid-year population estimates, we can calculate the numerical power of different age groups in the electorate. At this moment, as a proportion of all eligible voters, the 18 to 29 age group comprises 30% — or nearly a third of all eligible voters.

If we think of young people in generous terms and include voters in their thirties, then this group swells to a staggering 56%; well over half of all eligible voters.

These numbers show the enormous potential of young South Africans at the polls. Their vote choices can be politically dramatic for the country’s political landscape, especially if a clear ideological or partisan bias emerges.

Global studies show that young people have distinct concerns and policy attitudes that often differ substantially from their elders. New or existing political parties that are sufficiently perceptive and sensitive to this constituency can significantly improve their electoral fortunes.

Despite their disproportionately larger numbers in the electorate, young people register, and vote, at far lower rates than their older counterparts. In the 2019 national elections, less than half of all eligible voters between the ages of 18 and 29 years had registered (48%).

Far fewer cast a ballot: only 15% of all eligible 18- to 19-year-olds, and 30% of young people in their twenties voted. Registration figures for the forthcoming 2021 municipal elections indicate that the situation has worsened. Approximately 9% of 18- to 19-year-olds and 44% of 20- to 29-year-olds are registered and able to participate in November’s election.

The 10% decline in registration among the 20-year-olds is most alarming — from 54% in 2019 to 44% — and is most likely the result of the least actively inclined, youngest group moving into this higher age group over time, bringing with them their habit of not registering or voting.  

So, although young South Africans are numerically dominant, their low registration levels diminish their impact at elections. The low registration levels among young people are, practically speaking, their greatest impediment to voting.

It is less clear why young people have opted out of electoral politics. Low turnout rates among young people are a global phenomenon. Undoubtedly, young South Africans are shaped by factors that influence young people everywhere, which include changes to communication technology and media consumption, weaker party loyalties and the disinclination among younger generations to regard voting as a civic duty.

However, there are also likely to be country-specific reasons that explain the reluctance to vote among younger South Africans and this has turned our attention to the impact of high unemployment rates, poor governance experiences and rising political distrust and disaffection towards political parties in particular. Together, these factors may produce a jaundiced view of representational procedures like elections and political actors.

What is certain, however, is that the participation gap between young and older people has had a negative impact on aggregate participation levels at South Africa’s recent elections. Where young people are a sizeable and growing section of the population, their lower turnout rates are likely to leave a marked imprint in the turnout data, depressing our country’s turnout rate at each election. This is likely to continue in subsequent elections as the population expands and younger cohorts refrain from voting.  

Nonetheless, the sheer numbers of young people who are registered for the 2021 municipal elections ensure that they remain an important constituency. They make up a significant proportion of all registered voters. A breakdown of registration by age reveals that 18- to 29 year-olds comprise 17% of all registered voters, and 30- to 30 year-olds add another 26%. Together, registered voters under the age of 40 comprise 43% of the total registered voter population.

Assuming these registered youngsters do vote, their impact will be noticeable in this election because their attitudes and behaviour differ from their older counterparts in important ways. Young people are not easily mobilised or guided at elections by long-standing party loyalties to the same extent as older voters. Political parties will need to work much harder to mobilise this large potential pool of support.

Still, as this election campaign takes off, it is difficult to detect a vibrant electoral mobilisation message from political parties with their designs on younger voters.

Moreover, the large number of young people at the polls without a fixed or party loyalty suggests that they will be far more responsive to short-term events and issues that are proximate to this election campaign. This is where their impact should be most decisive. Many of the 11 million young, registered voters will likely base their vote decision on recent party performance, the credibility of party candidates and leaders and other salient issues related to the Covid pandemic, corruption and service delivery. Political parties will be scrutinised for their likely performance, their competence and their leadership qualities. This does not bode well for several of the larger parties that suffer credibility deficits.

By virtue of being unattached to political parties and more responsive to the changing political context, young voters should also introduce some much-needed volatility and uncertainty into the electoral race. This is encouraging. Uncertainty about the outcome of an election is an essential element of democratic politics because it prompts elite responsiveness and accountability. The behaviour of young people in the forthcoming elections is difficult to predict and it is precisely this unpredictability that should hold our politicians’ attention.

For the moment, however, the participation gap between young and older people at elections does the former a great disservice. It invites a scenario of “mutual neglect” — a term coined by Martin Wattenberg in his 2016 book, Is Voting for Young People? — where young people ignore formal electoral politics and, in turn, are ignored by politicians. For as long as they are inactive at the polls, there is less incentive for South Africa’s political elites to pay attention to their policy preferences and political views and they will be largely disregarded. DM

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